I am having some difficulty in getting my head round the concept of cutting departmental expenditure by 25%. I appreciate that, because health south of the border is to be spared the worst of the cuts, the Barnett consequentials might mean that the Scottish Government gets away more lightly than would otherwise be the case. Nevertheless, we are still looking at an across the board cut of over 20% in the Scottish budget over the next four years.
Imagine that you are the head of the education directorate-general in the Scottish Government. You are asked for a 20% cut. How do you go about it? Is it possible to close one-fifth of all Scottish schools, colleges and universities over the next four years? A horrifying thought but how else can you deliver the savings required? And what about health? Can we close down a fifth of all Scottish hospitals and GP practices? Or, again, how else do you deliver?
And don't imagine that a few big-ticket items will serve up the bulk of the savings - they won't. The Scottish Goverrnment's budget this year is £31.6 billion; we would therefore envisage this falling to £25 billion by 2014. The new Forth bridge, the Edinburgh trams and other capital items might deliver £1 billion in savings but that would be far from enough. Nor will the usual salami-slicing do: you can't expect the number of policemen or prison officers to fall by 5% per year for four years without causing major difficulties; you need to take the extremely difficult decisions about what activities they should stop doing.
I can't even begin to see the way through ...