Kenny Farquharson: Bridge battle is taking its toll

EVEN the SNP's enemies had to admit it was an act of populist genius. Abolishing tolls over the Forth and Tay road bridges was a policy that kept on giving. Every time a motorist passed the place where the toll gates used to stand, he or she would be reminded of the munificence of that nice man Alex Salmond.

There was, of course, a price. There was the 21m cost of paying off the Tay Bridge debt and, of course, the loss of the annual 16m revenue from motorists. But the goodwill generated in key political battlegrounds such as Fife, Tayside and the Lothians was judged by the Nationalists to be worth every single penny. Arguably, it handed the SNP its historic election win in May 2007.

No one foresaw the consequences of playing politics with bridges: that the scrapping of tolls would ultimately throw into doubt the building of new schools and hospitals across Scotland, posing fundamental questions about SNP dogmatism; or that the issue of a new Forth bridge would show the Labour Party at its most cynical. Yet that is exactly where we find ourselves this weekend.

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The true measure of politicians comes when they are faced with the toughest of choices. By that rule neither First Minister Salmond nor Chancellor Alistair Darling emerges well from the saga over how to pay for a new road bridge over the Forth, an unforeseen expense made necessary by unexpected corrosion of suspension cables in the existing crossing.

Darling first. Of course the Scottish Government's request for a 2bn cash advance, to be taken out of the Treasury's grant over the next 20 years, is unconventional. Of course it's not "how things are done", as the Treasury rather sniffily said last week, as if someone had suggested wearing Hush Puppies with a lounge suit.

But since when have our politicians been obliged to stick to precedent? If the Scottish Government had borrowing powers – which I believe it should – it would be able to spread the cost over the next 20 years itself. (The timescale is not an issue. Labour has agreed to many privately-funded construction products that commit future governments to footing the bill.) In the temporary absence of such borrowing powers it is entirely reasonable to ask the UK Government for assistance.

So what possible motive would Darling have to refuse, and force the SNP to find the cash now? The answer is obvious: his motive is political. Darling wants to see the SNP Government squirm. If there is no legal impediment to advancing the money, Darling should do all he can to assist the building of a transport link that's crucial to the Scottish – and British – economy.

Salmond, in the meantime, has to be prudent and plan for the possibility that the Treasury continues to say no. And all the signs are that faced with that prospect he is going to make the wrong decision for the wrong reasons.

The Nationalists' failure to make their overambitious Scottish Futures Trust work means Salmond is left with three choices, all of them unpalatable for different reasons.

He is right to reject the option of cutting back capital spending in the next few years to build up a pile of cash – that money needs to be spent on capital projects now to give the sluggish Scottish economy a much-needed boost.

His choice is therefore a simple one. Either he funds the bridge through a public-private partnership (PPP), leveraging in cash from the private sector; or he decides to pay for it entirely from public funds, even though that will leave a huge hole in the Nationalists' spending plans. Salmond has plumped for the latter, and may well come to regret it.

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He and his colleagues plainly believe they are upholding a central tenet of their party's beliefs by rejecting private sector involvement. Yet they should ask themselves this question: Is their ideology shared by SNP voters? I suggest not. The SNP was elected to power by a remarkably disparate alliance of Scots. For every urban lefty in Dundee or Glasgow, disillusioned with the rightward drift of New Labour, there was a former Tory voter in Perthshire or Aberdeenshire who would sooner jump off a cliff than call themselves a socialist. Yet in these people's name the SNP is taking a dogmatic ideological stand against the private sector, in much the same way as it has turned its face against NHS reforms that have been shown in England to have huge benefits for patients.

The political price Salmond is willing to pay for keeping his ideological purity is a high one. His favoured option is bound to mean delays in school and hospital building projects, perhaps even the new Southern General in Glasgow, leaving patients and pupils languishing in crumbling wards and classrooms. In anyone's book this is political suicide. But Salmond cannot bring himself to countenance the alternative – a deal with the private sector that would probably mean the return of bridge tolls.

The First Minister knows full well that if tolls came back the same Pavlovian forces that made the abolition policy such a masterstroke will apply, but this time in reverse. Every time a motorist had to stump up a quid at the booths, he or she would inwardly curse the politicians who made this necessary. And Salmond couldn't guarantee that the politician in their sights was wearing a red rather than a yellow rosette.

It's the wrong call. But then so is Darling's intransigence. Scotland is ill-served by its political masters.