BUDGET day at Argyll and Bute Council used to be really, really dull. 

In one form or another, I’ve been covering, or overseeing reporters covering, the council’s affairs for more than 20 years now. In pre-pandemic times, budget day in February was the one day of the year I knew I’d have to drive, or tell someone else to drive, all the way to Lochgilphead, and all the way home again, to be able to report first-hand on how the council planned to spend its cash (sorry, no, your cash) and how big your council tax bill was going to be for the next 12 months. 

While there have been a few big clashes between those in power and those in opposition in those 20-plus years, more often than not - at least for those, like me, looking for a few fireworks and a juicy headline or two - consensus has largely been the name of the game, and my thought at the end of the big budget day meeting has been “well, that was a lot of effort for not very much”. 

READ MORE: Argyll and Bute's councillors vote through huge 10 per cent council tax hike

Not this time. I'm fairly sure the 10 per cent hike that will take effect in April is the largest in my time watching the council's affairs, and the anger of those in power in Argyll and Bute at the position they say they’ve been left in by years of government cuts is clear (see Helensburgh councillor Gary Mulvaney describing the last-minute offer of more cash from the Scottish Government to local authorities as “more akin to Dibley Parish Council”).

The anger of those in power in Edinburgh at little Argyll and Bute defying the “council tax freeze” pledge made by Humza Yousaf last October is a little less overt, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet that they weren’t best pleased.

Councils complaining they haven’t got enough money, and pinning the blame on either the Scottish or UK Government, isn’t new, of course. I had cause the other day to be rifling through one of our bound archive files from this week in the late 1980s, and sure enough, at a time when a Scottish Parliament was no more than a glint in a few politicians’ eyes, the situation was pretty much the same then as it is now, with blame-pinning and buck-passing on all sides.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as I like to think my old football coach might have said when I sclaffed the ball off the pitch for the umpteenth time.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Councillors Robin Currie, Fiona Howard, Gary Mulvaney and Mark Irvine had very different views on Argyll and Bute Council's 10 per cent tax riseCouncillors Robin Currie, Fiona Howard, Gary Mulvaney and Mark Irvine had very different views on Argyll and Bute Council's 10 per cent tax rise (Image: Newsquest)

While I wholly understand the reactions of some opposition councillors in branding such a big tax hike as "scandalous" and "despicable" at a time when many families' finances are already close to breaking point, I think the councillors on Argyll and Bute’s ruling coalition deserve some credit for confronting one thing head-on, even if it was slightly lost in the heat of budget day and the angry reactions on all sides in the immediate aftermath.

It is this: that if we want properly-funded public services, we cannot expect to get them without having to pay appropriately. 

The decision to hike council tax by 10 per cent, with a 6 per cent rise in fees and charges for using council tax on top of that (as well as a 9 per cent increase in water and sewerage charges, though that one was imposed by Scottish Water, not the council) probably wasn’t an attempt to shift societal attitudes as much as an effort to affix a sticking plaster that might last a little bit longer than the ones they’ve used before.

READ MORE: 'Scandalous and despicable': Helensburgh and Lomond opposition councillors react to 10 per cent council tax rise

But it did mean that the major cuts we’ve seen in the past to the local authority’s vital services did not happen this time round.

For generations we as a society have come to regard taxation as, at best, a necessary evil. The default position among the public at large, and much of the media, seems to be that taxation, in and of itself, is A Bad Thing, and that what money we do fork out, under much duress, is being frittered away, if not worse, by (and on) people in suits who haven’t got a clue, and isn't not being spent on the front line where it’s really needed.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Shona Robison insists the council tax freeze pledge was not an attempt to punish local authoritiesShona Robison insists the council tax freeze pledge was not an attempt to punish local authorities

That’s an understandable attitude, especially now, when the cost-of-living crisis has been heaped upon the financial impact of Covid, the effect of the war in Ukraine on energy supplies, the fiscal suicide note that was and is Brexit, and the years and years and years of austerity that came before that. But I think it’s a very corrosive one. 

The idea of actually being upfront with people about how much they should or shouldn’t pay in tax, and what will happen as a result of that, would be laughed at by most politicians who have ever spent about five minutes living in the real world. Tell voters, for example, that if they want the best health service, the best schools, the best roads, libraries, criminal justice systems and so on, they’ll have to pay quite a bit more for the privilege, and just see what happens to you at the ballot box. 

Similarly if you want to cut people’s taxes, I think you should be obliged to tell them exactly what that will mean for the public services they, you and we all need - and, notably, what it will mean for the private sector that will inevitably be called upon to plug the gap.

READ MORE: Council tax freeze 'not a punishment for local authorities', Scottish Government insists

Politicians actually being honest with the public? I know, I know, it’ll never catch on. When we go to the polls in the UK General Election some time in the next 12 months, I think I can confidently predict that every party’s manifesto - at least in the mainstream - will be as full of empty promises as ever, and as light on the detail as usual about how they’ll all be paid for.

And thus will start the same old blame game, all over again. Only I doubt plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose will be the phrase on anybody’s lips.