THE SNP decision to end council tenants’ right to buy their homes is a landmark moment in Scottish political history.
On one level, it is a move by the Scottish Government with a number of practical justifications. There is an acute shortage of social housing in this country, and the rapid growth in the number of households shows every sign of accelerating – a consequence, in part, of the increasing number of people living on their own as a result of marital break-up.
While the SNP government has pledged to spend more on building new homes for rent, public spending is unprecedentedly tight and, therefore, ministers say they have no option but to halt the decline in the number of homes for rent caused by the right to buy.
And yet it is hard to avoid the suspicion that there is something of an ideological motive to this decision, and there is a degree of relish about toppling one of the most iconic political totems of Thatcherism. This was, after all, the policy that defined Margaret Thatcher’s rule in the 1980s.
It is routinely cited as one of her greatest achievements – even by some people who were otherwise viscerally opposed to every other aspect of her economic and social agenda.
The reason that it is such an emotive subject is that the right to buy was only partly to do with housing policy. In greater measure, it was a political act with a far more grand and philosophical purpose.
Much has been written down the years about the need to counteract what sociologists have identified as a dependency culture in some sections of Scottish society. And there can be little doubt that giving families the right to step out of the mindset of being a tenant and instead become a homeowner can be seen as a tool of empowerment.
That offer has been taken up by 500,000 families since the 1980s.
In a country the size of Scotland, that is an extraordinarily social shift – and a significant piece of social engineering. It can probably be said with a degree of confidence that, as a consequence, the culture of dependency is not now as great a feature of Scottish life as it was a generation ago.
Of course, the idea that home-ownership is in some ways subjectively superior to renting a home is problematic in many ways. There are far too many people that fit neither of the stereotypes this notion presumes. And yet there remains a widely-acknowledged view that home-ownership, in general terms, either reflects or engenders a sense of independent self-sufficiency.
While a number of vested interests in the housing sector will celebrate its passing, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that on the ladder of social mobility, a rung has been kicked away.
The ending of the right to buy is not, therefore, necessarily a case for celebration. Many Scots, now and in the future, will have cause to mourn its passing.
Reserves can help bridge divide
NEW money for a section of the UK’s armed forces is a rarity in these days of soldier lay-offs and cuts in defence spending. But the extra funding announced yesterday for the country’s reserve forces is more than justifiable.
There are pros and cons in changing the focus of the UK’s military configuration to lean more heavily on reserve forces. The most obvious disadvantage is that reservists have less training than regular, full-time soldiers. This in turn necessitates regular training sessions where reservists in various specialities are taken out of civilian life and put through their paces.
This is necessarily a burden on these men and women’s employers, who face regular disruption and have to have an understanding attitude to this inconvenient arrangement.
The advantages are also obvious. Reservists are cheaper than regular soldiers – a considerable advantage at a time when there are many demands on the public purse and defence is often seen by the Treasury as an easy target for spending cuts. Reservists help our armed forces get – sometimes literally – more bang for their buck. But there is another, less
obvious positive in having a greater emphasis on reservists. There has been much discussion in recent years about the need to develop the implicit contract between soldier and civilian – the one risking his or her life in the service of the country inhabited by the other.
There have been times – notably during the Iraq War – when that contract seemed strained.
Having a new emphasis on reservists does more to embed the military in ordinary society, bringing it more in to the communities it serves.