WE now have less than four weeks until polling day and the General Election campaign in Scotland is in full swing.

This week saw the first head-to-head TV debate between Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer – a dismal display that showed the public just how little separates these two politicians.

Scotland got not even so much as a cursory mention by either of the Westminster party leaders – not even to wish Steve Clarke’s team luck when looking ahead to the Euro 2024 football championship.

What was clear to me from the uninspiring event on Tuesday was how both parties failed to address the fault line in this election campaign – public spending and investing in our NHS.

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Austerity, and its devastating impacts, are felt deeply by the people I represent.

How political parties respond to the cost of living crisis, after 14 years of Tory cuts to public services, is a key factor in how many will vote at the upcoming election.

The takeaway from this first TV debate really came when Sir Keir Starmer confirmed that Labour would continue the failed economic model of the Conservatives.

After more than a decade of Tory austerity, this is the worst possible news for anyone who values our public services.

This absurd position has resulted in stark warnings by the experts. The director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson, said this: “Neither party is really addressing the big problems that they’ll face if they win the election.

“The numbers that we’ve got from the Chancellor, which the Labour Party have not demurred from at all, imply big spending cuts over the next five years, unless there are big tax rises, or the parties break their promises on getting the national debt down.

“But they don’t want to talk about that, because if they talk about it, they have to talk about where those spending cuts are going to come from. Neither of them want to do that.”

The people of Scotland are well wise to this conspiracy of silence, of course. It’s a bit like the conspiracy of silence at Westminster on Brexit.

Refusing to stray from the failed economic plans of the Tories is a pretty absurd decision by Sir Keir Starmer. He now has the opportunity as Prime Minister to focus on a better future, but he has chosen to look the other way.

For Scotland, this is the reality of Westminster control. Whether Labour or the Tories are in Downing Street, it’s cuts, cuts, cuts.

As Deputy First Minister, I see the enormous pressure that there is on the public finances, and therefore on our public services.

I want to make sure that Scotland’s NHS can meet the expectations of every one of our citizens in our country. I want our schools to make sure we are giving our young people the best start in life.

I want our student population, to be skilled for the future, to be able to take forward the innovations of tomorrow. I want the housing stock of our country to be replenished and strengthened to meet the needs of our population, particularly responding to the acute needs of our Highland and island communities.

These are the necessary choices in public expenditure that are in front of politicians.

We know what the Tories have done over the last 14 years. And we now know what Labour has signed itself up to. But, of course, there is another way, and the Scottish Government, the SNP Government, is a testament to the fact it doesn’t have to be the Westminster way.

In the last few years, we have introduced an approach to progressive taxation which has acknowledged that people on higher earnings should make a greater contribution towards the public purse.

As a consequence of the SNP government’s decisions, there is £1.5 billion available to spend on public services in Scotland today that wouldn’t be available had we not taken the decisions that we have taken on tax.

SO our investment in Scotland’s National Health Service can be higher than it ordinarily would have been because the SNP Government has made that hard choice on tax. And we can commit to pay deals which have avoided strikes in our NHS.

Investing in our schools, colleges, and universities, is higher than it ordinarily could have been, because the SNP Government has made the hard choice on tax.

The Westminster parties can’t escape the reality of what the Institute for Fiscal Studies is saying. There will be significant cuts in public expenditure, in a whole host of different areas of policy in the years to come, unless Labour take a different stance.

This week also marked the first time I covered First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood, while our First Minister was in Portsmouth and Normandy representing Scotland at the 80th D-Day commemorations.

While it’s an intense start to a Thursday, I am immensely proud of the record of delivery of our SNP Scottish Government – and it’s telling that the opposition really don’t like hearing about it.

Our most recent Budget has seen the Scottish Child Payment increase and the best-performing accident and emergency services in this country.

It has delivered for business by slashing or abolishing rates for businesses and it has made Scotland the top destination outside London for foreign direct investment.

That is a record to be proud of – and it’s one I will continue to take to the doorsteps in the coming weeks.

Jackie Baillie put it to me that the people of Scotland are crying out for change. I agree with her – but they won’t get any change from Labour, as the IFS have so eloquently confirmed.

People have had enough of Westminster control – they want decisions about Scotland to be made right here in Scotland.

However, it would be a lot easier to deliver those game-changing policies if we did not have Tory austerity on repeat.

The choice at this election is stark, and people in Scotland have got to think long and hard about whether they want to vote for a Labour Party that will deliver Tory spending cuts, or for the Scottish National Party, that will invest in the future of Scotland and put Scotland’s interests first.

July 4 – Independence Day – is our chance to vote SNP to put Scotland’s interests, and Scotland’s National Health Service, first. This is an opportunity for people to vote SNP for a future made in Scotland, for Scotland. Let’s take it.