Monteith: Labour and Tories give recipes for future

Anas Sarwar will lay out his vision for Scotland's future in a speech today. Picture: TSPL
Anas Sarwar will lay out his vision for Scotland's future in a speech today. Picture: TSPL
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Opposing speeches will give us a flavour of what two politicians and their parties stand for, writes Brian Monteith

THERE will be two important speeches made in the next few days that will seek to discuss ideas and ideologies rather than independence. We know this is the case, for the two speeches – by Labour’s Anas Sarwar and the Scottish Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson – have already been trailed.

This practice is now standard form, for the pressures of highly competitive news reporting mean that usually only one aspect of what the media thinks newsworthy will be covered. It also means that when there are competing speeches, as is the case this week, one shouldn’t drown the other out – although after they are delivered, the commentators may ignore what might be the duller or less important of the two.

So this week Sarwar will seek to create more distance between Labour and the SNP on the issue of which party truly deserves to carry the torch for social justice in Scotland, that pink blancmange of political concepts that can mean anything to anyone with no way of knowing who’s right.

Sarwar will claim that the SNP’s middle-class socialism – the concept of giving expensive public benefits to everyone, free – is against the interests of the working class where true poverty needs help and that Labour is rediscovering its roots by saying the poorest in society must benefit from redistribution of wealth.

Not so much a pink blancmange as a blood-red raspberry jelly.

This is all good stuff, in as much as the left of Scottish politics – be it Nicola Sturgeon one week or Anas Sarwar the next – is seeking to redefine what it actually stands for, outside the context of independence. It may lead to some interesting conclusions, not least that the Scottish Parliament already has significant powers to deliver the redistribution of wealth that some in the left say they seek, prompting the next question: why then are these powers never used to any great extent, especially by the SNP?

Is it not the case that in social justice, as in taxation, be it under devolution or a sovereign parliament free from the Westminster straitjacket, any deviation except at the margins will result in capital flight and a stampede by many of our brightest and best talents to where they will be better rewarded – and able to keep more of those rewards? Such as England.

Greater regulation and suffocating licensing of any commercial practice with charges just to do business (such as renting a property) together with more stealth taxes on domestic and commercial development (John Swinney’s new property taxes), never mind the denial of opportunity that elsewhere in Britain is taken for granted (such as establishing a new school), are just the start of Scotland seeking to be “more socially just”. Instead of swimming free, our nation will be drowning in its own treacly tide of collectivist control and planning.

This is all good news for the Scottish Conservatives, for anything that helps create some clear consommé between them and the socialists will in turn help define them, and definition is something they desperately need.

In recent times, the most radical and inspiring policy platform that the Conservatives have had going into any election in was in 1999 under David McLetchie. At every subsequent election, that manifesto was diluted like barley water to the point where it had little discernible taste at all. Needless to say, the public preferred to stick with their Irn-Bru.

Now Ruth Davidson is trying to give some flavour of what she stands for. What I’ve seen so far of her offering on education, and what I’m led to believe is included on nursery and childcare, suggests she will offer a real choice.

When it comes to education, it is always important to have some examples at one’s disposal to back up your policy ideas. In pointing to the wealth of evidence from abroad, such as the technical schools in Japan, Europe and, yes, England too, Davidson is going to show that not only does she offer a better future for Scotland’s majority of youngsters who don’t go to university, but she intends to improve the nation’s public sector rather than threaten it.

While the SNP fixates with free university tuition for the minority middle classes, Davidson will focus on improving the prospects of the forgotten masses, many of whom have no future and so turn away from society. When it comes to social justice in education, Davidson will thus be able to claim better credentials than her opponents.

Better still, I understand Davidson is going to revive the idea of nursery vouchers as a way to help improve access to pre-school education.

You could always tell the Tory policies of the eighties and nineties that were most feared by the left, for they were demonised and misrepresented in equal measure in an attempt to prevent them getting off the ground before they became popular with the public.

With the right to buy council houses, the left never had a chance to undermine the policy and nearly half a million Scots took the opportunity to benefit from the opportunity. No such luck for nursery vouchers which, although popular with parents and having the desired effect of expanding the range and raising the quality of nursery provision, had not bedded-in long enough to be beyond their destructive withdrawal by Labour.

Thanks to those vouchers, new schools had opened up, and we need that same encouragement to help expand provision so that pre-school education for more children and from an earlier age becomes accessible to all.

The revival of the nursery voucher – again using international experience from Scandinavia, those lands of undiluted social democracy no less – can also put Davidson on the side of the social justice angels.

Would Sturgeon and Sarwar be against greater provision of pre-school education simply because it might involve using the independent sector to provide the solution?

When it comes to the recipe for social justice, Davidson’s bread and butter pudding could be more appealing than their squidgy, wobbly concoctions.