IT’S weird how quickly you forget the trauma of those early years of working motherhood. Not that it’s easy later on. Even when your kids are in secondary school, you still have to fit your working hours around their time tables.
But, oh boy, those early years. Pleading with the nursery to take your toddler because their eyes are only a wee bit crusty and honestly they don’t have conjunctivitis. Sitting in traffic in a state of panic because you’re late for pick-up and there’s a stack of e-mails you should have answered. And that’s without even addressing the cost of childcare, which is so high many women are forced to choose between working for nothing or taking time out at a crucial point in their careers.
In this context, the SNP’s White Paper proposal on childcare seems like a gift. Within the first term of the post-independence parliament, the party claims, all three-, four- and vulnerable two-year-olds would be entitled to 1,140 free hours of nursery a year, a move which would generate £700m in taxes as more women return to the workplace. Even more incredibly, the government has pledged the same number of hours to all children over one by 2024. Tots not Trident, bairns not bombs, weans not weapons; whatever your sound-bite of preference, the promise of a Scandinavian-style childcare utopia is being dangled in front of independence-wary women like a hypnotist’s pendant.
Not that many of them appear to have fallen under its sway; they may like the idea in principle, but they’re asking lots of awkward questions, such as: Given so many young people are unemployed where are the new jobs going to come from? If childcare is so important why hasn’t anything been done before now (since the power to do so is devolved)? And, most importantly, why does the SNP keep offering a vision of a Nordic society while refusing to countenance Nordic levels of taxation?
The SNP has answers to some of these questions, but none of them are particularly satisfactory. It says the policy will lead to the creation of 35,000 childcare jobs (all presumably low-paid). It says it hasn’t acted before because, without scrapping Trident, there’s no money to fund its childcare revolution and, even if there was, the taxes would go straight to the Treasury. As for raising income tax, it reckons Scotland’s public finances are so buoyant there’s no need, even though, in Sweden, where childcare is heavily subsidised, but not free, the income tax rate is 30-57 per cent.
Even supposing its goals are achievable and you had no objections to being bribed to vote Yes, I think you should be cautious before proclaiming a strategy based solely on extra nursery provision a game-changer. Certainly, more free hours would help ease the pressure on families, although there are still the school holidays, but the lack of affordable childcare isn’t the only obstacle to mothers returning to work.
Almost as important is a flexible employer, an employer who doesn’t tut if you leave on time to do the pick-up or work from home because your child is sick, an employer who will consider your request to work part-time without making you feel as if you’re lazy or an almighty inconvenience. Yet, last week a survey by Mumsnet showed many mothers felt “shoved aside” when they returned to work after maternity leave; though there is no evidence a woman’s performance suffers after having children, they said their commitment was questioned and they were no longer taken seriously. My fear would be that if the SNP rolled out its childcare policy, the pressure on employers to change their attitudes would be eased and they would be absolved of any responsibility to respond to individual workers’ needs.
Nor do all mothers want to leave their children in nurseries. Sweden’s childcare provision is flexible, allowing women to work long, antisocial hours but it is also highly institutionalised. Since the SNP’s policy appears to be linked to pre-school education and the notion that nurseries can bridge the gap in attainment between the rich and the poor, it seems destined to follow in its footsteps. But what if you would prefer your child to be looked after in a less structured environment? Wouldn’t it be better to provide a range of options – nurseries, child minders, nannies – so parents had choices?
And what if you don’t want to go back to work? The Salmond model risks creating a climate where staying at home even for a few years is frowned upon. In 2012, the female labour market participation in Sweden was 77.7 per cent compared to 71.9 per cent in Scotland and, while I’m sure most women there are grateful, it’s easy to see how a right to work could become an expectation, with those who chose to take time out regarded as shirkers.
Of course, I’m not against more affordable childcare. It’s good the SNP has opened up the debate, even if it is only to woo voters. But now they’ve demonstrated they recognise the electoral, if not the social, significance of helping women back into employment, it’s time to up the ante and make sure they come up with proposals sophisticated enough to revolutionise their lives – as well as commit to change regardless of the referendum result. Working mothers have an important contribution to make to Scotland’s future whether or not it becomes independent. A party that doesn’t recognise that risks losing their support either way.