Alex Massie: Youth policies focus referendum minds

The tuition fee debate has had an impact on the campaign. Picture: TSPL
The tuition fee debate has had an impact on the campaign. Picture: TSPL
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AS with any policy, attitudes towards education and childcare depend on individual voters but trying to pigeon-hole them is foolish, writes Alex Massie

Just for once, the cliched, lazy suggestion that won’t someone, somewhere, please, please think of the children has some merit. What is this referendum campaign if not an argument about the future? A debate about the kind of country Scotland is, or could be, and the type of society we wish to bequeath to the next generations of Scottish children? Never mind what’s been and gone, think of the getting there. The past is another country and so is the future.

Considered in that light, the Scottish Government’s decision to broaden the franchise and grant 16 and 17-year-old Scottish residents the right to vote in next month’s referendum seems entirely reasonable. It is their country too and they will have to live with the consequences, for good or ill, of the referendum’s outcome. They have a larger, more personal, stake in the outcome than some of their elders.

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And yet despite that, there are few signs that a new generation of Scottish voters have been enthused by the possibilities that come with independence. Polls suggest that, as in other elections, pensioners are more likely to vote than teenagers and also that, contrary to some expectations, the youngest tranche of voters take a harshly sceptical view of independence.

Politicians endlessly repeat the mantra “education, education, education” but opinion polls consistently reveal that fewer than one in six voters consider education one of the most important issues facing the country. In truth, education only occasionally dominates the political agenda. It might go a long way towards deciding a country’s future but voters are generally more concerned with the present. Jobs, the economy and the NHS touch everyone now; education does not.

Moreover, as a devolved matter – and one, thanks to Scotland’s distinct exam and university systems, that is obviously and widely known to be devolved – it is less than immediately apparent that education might be transformed by independence. Most probably, voters are liable and entitled to think, it would continue much as it is now. Certainly there is nothing stopping the Scottish Government from reforming Scottish education except, perhaps, the will to do so.

One of the few areas of education policy to have made any great impact during the long referendum campaign is university tuition fees. But even the question of whether Scottish universities could continue to charge fees, uniquely, to English, Welsh and Northern Irish students after independence has only been a matter of marginal, specialist, concern. The Scottish Government is convinced it could continue to discriminate against UK students even though most – if not all – independent observers think it highly unlikely Scotland could charge fees to students from one EU state (the UK) while not charging students from other nations. This may explain why many of Scotland’s former university principals have expressed their reservations about independence.

Much greater attention has been paid to children’s early years. A pledge to devote significantly greater resources to childcare is one of the Scottish Government’s clearest examples of an “independence dividend”. It is depressing to think that childcare is generally considered a “women’s issue” and that the proposals are transparently an attempt to close the gender gap that has long been one of the obstacles along the road to independence. (A cynic might even think Nicola Sturgeon’s unofficial title is “Alex Salmond’s Ambassador to Women”.)

But depressing for a number of reasons. First, because labelling a policy “for women” frequently and implicitly consigns it to second-class status; secondly because doing so contrives to insult women voters as capable only on focusing on their own immediate, domestic, interests. There are no comparable “men’s policies”. And thirdly depressing because childcare would, even in a less-than-ideal world, be an issue for fathers as well as mothers.

Be that as it may, the Government argues that its childcare plan is that rarest of beasts: a virtuous policy in which all earn prizes and there are no losers. Increasing childcare provision will encourage more women to return to work, which will increase tax revenues that will pay for the increased cost of state-sponsored childcare.

Moreover, only independence can achieve this since without independence increases in Scottish tax revenues would simply be kept by the UK Treasury. Scotland would bear the costs but enjoy few of the rewards. This, the SNP insists, is why it cannot increase spending on childcare now. Or, rather, explains why it chooses not to since, at present, increased spending on childcare must come at the expense of reduced spending in another area of the Scottish Government’s responsibilities. A reminder that to govern is to choose – a predicament that cannot be eased by independence.

In any event, that might be the case under the existing devolution “settlement” but, however much nationalists doubt it, the present constitutional arrangements may not survive a No vote either. Change is promised by all the main Unionist parties even if they cannot yet agree on the precise detail of those changes. At the very least, however, it seems probable that the Scottish Parliament might be granted control of income tax and benefit from increases in revenue stemming from tax increases – or even cuts – in the future. (National Insurance is likely, however, to remain a reserved matter).

All of which serves as a reminder that policy cannot be neatly pigeon-holed as a “family issue” or a “women’s matter”. Like the bones in the human body, everything is connected. There are no free-standing policies and slicing and dicing the electorate into segments that can be pacified or persuaded by individual policy baubles is a presumptuous enterprise that risks treating voters as gullible simpletons.

And yet, despite that, thinking of the children helps concentrate the mind. What kind of Scotland do we seek and can that Scotland be delivered by independence or not? The possibilities are as varied as the country itself but, in the final analysis, this future will be built by individual voters themselves just as much as it will rely on any vision promised by any politician. You family, your children, your country.