Kenny Farquharson: Alex Salmond finally learns his lesson on Scotland’s children
THE SNP has, in the common parlance, grown a pair. I’ve spent 20 years watching Alex Salmond on political platforms and I can’t recall him making a better speech than yesterday’s in Glasgow.
Not because of how it was delivered – he has developed an awful hiccupy giggle when he is particularly pleased with himself, which is often. And not because of the speech’s rhetoric – there was far less woad and bad poetry on display than on other occasions. No, it was a great speech because it showed Salmond now has the political cojones to do what’s required to deliver a better education for Scotland’s children.
The SNP’s record on this in government is woeful. It’s nothing short of an embarrassment for the Nationalists that they have been in power for almost five years without a single piece of legislation on how Scotland’s children are schooled. As a result, few of the SNP’s promises on education have been delivered. These include key manifesto commitments on cutting class sizes, free school dinners and providing 600 hours of free nursery education for every pre-schooler.
Up until now, SNP ministers have simply shrugged and blamed local councils for failing to implement these policies. “It wisnae me, it was him,” is always a lame excuse. The SNP could have forced the issue by legislating to ensure councils had no wriggle room, but Salmond’s government never had the guts. The result was an SNP Government that looked impotent – in government but not in power.
There were complex reasons for this. The Nationalists’ deal with Scotland’s local authorities – sometimes loftily referred to as the “historic concordat” – was designed to deliver the eye-catching election promise of a council tax freeze. But it came at a price – a hands-off approach to how councils spent their money. There would be no ringfencing of cash given to councils by the Scottish Government. This, plus the absence of SNP legislation, meant Salmond’s government could not deliver its promises on perhaps the most important issue to millions of Scots – their children’s schooling.
Of course, there is a political imperative behind this belated conversion to common sense. Poll after poll shows women are far less willing than men to back the SNP and its goal of independence. Women are not as likely as men to get caught up in all the emotive talk of freedom and national emancipation. They are interested in far more practical considerations, like their kids’ education, their parents’ healthcare and their family’s future financial stability. The nursery school promise is a pretty naked attempt at breaking down this resistance. But let’s not quibble. A number of times over the past few years this column has expressed frustration at the lack of a schools bill at Holyrood, so I now wholeheartedly welcome the SNP’s decision to back up its promise on nursery provision with legal force. This is good news, and I hope it extends to other education policies as well. But I do lament the five long years it has taken to come to this point. What a wasted opportunity.
It was inevitable that yesterday’s speech would have the usual party political brickbats that misrepresented the Nats’ opponents. Taking Salmond at face value, you’d have to believe the Labour party was viscerally opposed to jobs, apprenticeships, learning and bobbies on the beat. Salmond probably had to be dissuaded from saying Labour was also against puppies, chocolate biscuits and summer holidays.
That’s only to be expected. But put it aside and there was a welcome new tone to the bulk of the First Minister’s remarks. Refreshingly, Salmond’s speech was pretty much free of moaning. For a change, there was very little sign of the SNP blaming Westminster for Scotland’s ills. This was a speech about promise and possibility. It was about what Scotland could do for itself, in the right circumstances. And this brings us to another reason why Salmond’s speech yesterday was a landmark one for the SNP leader.
One of the most common mistakes in Scottish politics is to quote the late Donald Dewar as saying: “Devolution is a process, not an event.” In fact, it was Dewar’s cabinet colleague Ron Davies, the former Welsh Secretary, who coined the phrase in a speech in February 1999. To the best of my recollection, Dewar never said those words, but the idea has nonetheless cemented itself into the Scottish political mindset and is hard to shake. Now, after Salmond’s speech yesterday, we must add a variation on that theme to our understanding of Scotland’s future. Because the First Minister yesterday presented us with the notion that – like devolution – independence is a process, not an event.
Salmond did this by characterising the devolution we already have, not as some kind of betrayal of Scottish nationhood, as has been the Nationalists’ argument in the past, but instead as “a bit of independence”. He said: “The lesson is a simple one. A little independence has been good for Scotland. But real independence will be even better.”
This is very clever political positioning. It aims to see off Labour’s aim of reclaiming its mantle as the party of devolution – contrasting its honourable record on home rule with the SNP’s plans for a separate state. Salmond’s message was this: the debate on Scotland’s future is not about devolution versus independence, it is about what degree of independence you’re comfortable with. Salmond yesterday even appropriated the phrase “home rule” to describe independence.
The really clever thing is that this is the ultimate expression of SNP gradualism. It denies any room for manoeuvre to the SNP fundamentalists who are increasingly vocal about their dislike of a second question in the referendum, believing it makes a vote for full independence more difficult to achieve. They are right, of course. But how can they now argue against “more independence”?
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: East