Leader: Opportunity for SNP and Labour to unite

SNP and Labour could put differences aside for good of the country. Picture: Ian Rutherford

SNP and Labour could put differences aside for good of the country. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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SNP and Labour agreement on schooling for the poorest Scots is a heartening moment

Leading politicians rarely admit to mistakes. The big beasts do not like to give the impression that they ever put a foot wrong. But the same regret was voiced by both Tony Blair and Alex Salmond when they stepped down from their respective party leaderships. Blair – who made headlines early in his leadership with a promise that his priorities would be “education, education, education” – later regretted that he had allowed himself to become diverted from this path. In particular, he mused that much of the money he lavished on the NHS in New Labour’s first two terms in power would have been better spent on schools.

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His thinking was that every pound spent on education improves life chances and wellbeing in the long term, and that is the best way of making a commitment to the country’s future. Salmond came to a similar conclusion after he stepped aside from the SNP leadership in November last year. He said he wished he had made the connection far earlier during his time in power that money invested in early-years education can provide tangible benefits for the economy in both the short and long term.

The truth of the matter is that most political leaders prefer big, immediate, epoch-making matters of state to the less thrilling minutiae of education policy. The difficult and complex process of improving our children’s prospects seldom detains our political masters for long. Should we expect the same of Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy, who this weekend have been setting out their plans to tackle the attainment gap in Scottish schools? We very much hope not. And to be fair, both leaders appear sincere in their dismay at the close correlation between poverty and poor academic performance, and both seem committed to ensuring that a child from a disadvantaged home in a disadvantaged area can fulfil their potential to the full.

Particularly encouraging is Sturgeon’s willingness – flagged up in her article in this newspaper today – to look to the innovative London Challenge. Usually, when the SNP looks outwith Scotland for inspiration it is to Scandinavia or Ireland or Catalonia or the Basque Country – anywhere but England. Sturgeon’s willingness, enthusiasm, even, for an English policy approach is refreshing and heartening. In this, at least, she is defying our assumptions about what to expect from a Scottish Nationalist leader.

Rarely is Scotland’s self-regarding view of itself as a left-of-centre country with a burning desire for social justice borne out in the decisions Scots make at the ballot box. We would rather talk about it than vote for it. The last party to propose a tax rise for Scottish education – the SNP in 1999, with its Penny For Scotland – was rejected by the voters. But now, for what seems like the first time in a long time, there is a political consensus on an issue that can make a huge difference to the lives of Scotland’s poorest children.

We are in the happy position of having the two rival contenders for Scottish first minister agreed on the problem, with a similar analysis of why that problem exists, and similar thinking on the kind of measures required to remedy it. It would be a shamefully wasted opportunity were the political debate on differential attainment in schools now to descend into an attempt by each side to demolish and disparage the other’s arguments.

The question for Sturgeon and Murphy is this: is it really beyond them to unite for the best of causes; to pool their best thinking and expertise; to cross-pollenate ideas and strategies; to create an unstoppable alliance for change on this issue? After the recent years of division it would be an extraordinarily powerful moment for this country. Education, education, education – it is not a bad slogan, even if the man who coined it has fallen out of favour. Can Scotland unite to make it a national priority?

Rich variety of dialects should be unashamedly celebrated on TV and radio

THE problem with the debate about the Scots language is that different people have very different definitions of exactly what is meant by the Scots tongue.

To some purists it is the distinctive language used in centuries of common speech and literature, from John Barbour’s Brus in the 14th century through to the poems of Robert Burns in the 18th century.

Much of this can be difficult to the modern reader and speaker, just as English from this time can prove difficult for modern English speakers.

To others, the Scots language it is the “synthetic Scots” created by Hugh MacDiarmid in the 20th century, raiding old dictionaries and literary texts to create a patchwork language drawn from various times in the nation’s history, as well as from different geographical areas.

He used this with marvellous effect in lyrical poetry that is admired worldwide, ranking MacDiarmid alongside Pound and Eliot as one of the great poets of his age, and giving the lie to the sour view that to be interested in Scots was in some way insular or – in a common insult – a product of the kailyard.

For most Scots in the 21st century, the Scots language manifests itself in the nation’s rich array of local dialects, each with their own distinctive vocabulary and syntax.

These are so particular it is often hard for someone from, say, Glasgow, to understand someone talking in the Doric of the north-east. The same is true of a Shetlander conversing with someone from the Borders. A journey of just a few miles from a Dundee housing estate to a Forfarshire village produces a change in language that would put the Great Vowel Shift to shame.

Standard English is Scotland’s primary means of communication. But, as highlighted in our news story today, there is a strong argument for greater parity of esteem for Scots – or more, accurately and more usefully, the many different strands of Scots.

They are a living and enormously rich part of who we are. It is good that they are increasingly celebrated in schools. But our broadcasters should be encouraged to make more use of them. The message? Dinnae be a feartie.

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