ALEX Salmond, in his essay in this newspaper today, places great emphasis on his party’s plans for a massive increase in free childcare, if Scotland becomes independent and if the SNP is elected to become the first government of a sovereign Scottish state.
Salmond is right to make as much noise as he can about this idea. Too often, the debate about independence is an arcane one about issues such as division of national debt, European Union treaty minutiae and other unbeatable cures for insomnia. A revolution in childcare provision is the perfect antidote to all this. It is a policy both practical and visionary; it is easy to grasp and pertinent to people’s lives. Its obvious appeal to young mothers also serves to address the marked gender gap in the referendum campaign – with women far more wary of independence – which is perhaps the greatest of all impediments to a Yes vote in September. And yet, as we report on our front-page today, the policy could prove to be a double-edged sword. The Better Together campaign, in a tacit acknowledgement of the childcare policy’s potential appeal, seems determined to use it as a learning moment about the Yes campaign’s strategy as a whole.
It may have hit upon something. Its opinion polling shows the public is unconvinced by Salmond’s insistence that independence is required before such a revolution is possible. After all, powers over education and nursery provision are already fully devolved to Holyrood. If Scotland needs this revolution so badly, the voters seem to be saying, why not introduce it now? Salmond’s response to this is a telling one, revealing a mindset that voters may find instructive. He says he cannot implement this revolution now because the financial benefits – income tax generated by mothers of young children returning to work, and money saved from welfare bills – would go to the Treasury in Westminster, rather than the Scottish Government’s coffers in Edinburgh. This is indisputably true. Where Salmond may have misjudged the public mood is in his belief that voters will find this a good enough excuse for inaction now. A childcare revolution is possible within the confines of devolution. The nationalist mindset may balk at the thought that St Andrew’s House may not benefit financially from such a policy, but most Scots are not nationalists, and care little about such niceties. Politics is meant to be about the art of the possible. So why not make the possible a reality, and do it now?
Should the actions of a devolved Scottish Government really be constrained by a cynical calculation about which level of government would benefit from its implementation? Shouldn’t its priority be to act in the material interests of the Scottish people, regardless of such turf wars? There is also a question of consistency. If Salmond’s rationale is correct, then why does the Scottish Government expend so much energy attracting inward investment and creating jobs in growth sectors? Surely the income tax generated from these jobs, and the money saved from the welfare bill, also goes straight to the Treasury? The narrative this speaks to is the simplistic one that underpins the Yes campaign: that a bright new Scotland is only possible with independence, and that the alternative is a perpetual slough of despond. Two out of three people in the poll on childcare are saying – in the words of the Gershwin song – it ain’t necessarily so. If Alex Salmond offers a juicy carrot to the Scottish voters, he should not be surprised if they want to eat it now.
Councils take note
THIS newspaper has been campaigning since 2012 to end tuition fees for children learning a musical instrument at Scottish state schools. With backing from academics, educationalists and prominent musicians – as well as Scottish Government education minister Mike Russell – we have been putting pressure on local authorities to end the practice of charging hundreds of pounds for a service that used to be free. We have scored a number of landmark victories in this campaign, not least a £1 million fund for new music instruments for Scottish schools, and have persuaded many councils to change tack. But with every new budget round the case has to be put afresh. So we have no hesitation in warning Stirling and Clackmannanshire councils that they will face fierce opposition if they choose to adopt the regressive policies we highlight in our news story today.
The educational benefits of free tuition for all are clear. The case for not discriminating against children from low-income families is inarguable. And the passion that this issue generates has been amply demonstrated over the course of our Let The Children Play campaign. This is a subject that has captured the public’s imagination. If these councils will not do the right thing for the right reason, then we invite them to do it out of enlightened self-interest.