Lesley Riddoch: Let’s concentrate on real debate

THE media’s obsession with currency union is diverting attention from key devolved issues, says Lesley Riddoch
Alex Salmond holds a Q&A session with youngsters during a visit to the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow. Picture: Jane Barlow/PAAlex Salmond holds a Q&A session with youngsters during a visit to the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
Alex Salmond holds a Q&A session with youngsters during a visit to the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

Why do almost half of Scots want Scotland to become an independent state? I’m asked this every other day by foreign journalists pouring into Scotland who want to understand the dynamics behind the world’s most peaceful and high-profile independence process. Without exception they are amazed that newspapers here are obsessed with the single issue of currency. The drivers for change are less examined than one possible consequence of it.

In the last Westminster elections just over 1 per cent of Scottish MPs were Conservative compared to 20 per cent of Welsh MPs and 56 per cent of English MPs. Those figures tell us something. They reflect very different political cultures. Why is that not significant?

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Scots famously ejected every Conservative MP in 1997 – without formal coordination or proportional representation. Quite a feat. And quite a difference. Scots have accepted voting reform because fairness and representation are serious matters here.

In England, Labour and the Tories have remained hostile to change, leaving Britain with one of the least representative voting systems in modern Europe.

Last week, we learned that 22 new peers have donated nearly £7 million to political parties. The vast majority came from one Conservative donor, Michael Farmer. But another five new peers are party donors or closely associated with donors and 16 have held political positions. “This exposes the myth that the Lords is a chamber full of independent experts. Instead it appears to be a way for party political people to achieve high office without submitting themselves to election.” Not my view, but that of the Electoral Reform Society.

Westminster is wedded to elitism and has made no effort to democratise itself. Perhaps that’s why Canada and Australia and post-war Germany were created as federal nations. Even British civil servants could see the limitations of the centralised “Mother of Parliaments” as the model for new independent nations. Would an iScotland copy the elitism of London-centric Britain? No way.

The social democratic leaning of Scottish voters is almost as old as women’s right to vote. 40 per cent of Scots (at least) have voted Labour since the 1920s – with the exception of a National government and three Tory governments in the 1950s. That’s a profoundly different track record to rUK. It reflects the different political culture which arises from being a nation entering union with England with all its own institutions intact.

It’s been said so many times the impact has been lost, but Scotland’s traditions of education, law and religion have shaped what Professor David McCrone calls “a Scottish way of doing things.” It’s the encroachment on this uncodified but distinctive outlook by England’s increasingly market-obsessed, winner-takes-all society that’s been the main driver for Scottish independence – a culture of uninhibited greed created by Margaret Thatcher and fuelled by New Labour’s failure to reform or regulate.

Take education, for example. The Scots education system aims to give a general education – the English system is more specialist. An academic Scot sits five or six Highers before starting a four-year general arts or science university degree. The academic English student sits three or four A levels before a three-year specialist degree.

The school systems of England and Scotland are diverging still further. Most English children aged 11 have teacher assessments, “Key Stage Two” test results and National Curriculum tests in English, Science and Maths (Sats tests) marked by external examiners. The results are posted on performance league tables and after that pupils have teacher assessments every year until they take GCSEs at 14 or 15 – part of a hard-to-question conservative belief in England that judging, grading, dividing, testing, monitoring and constantly examining children produces results and active citizens. It does neither.

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English pupils currently perform less well than Scots in Maths and English and the whole UK lies outside the international top 20. In Finland – which regularly tops achievement charts – endless external testing is unknown, primary teachers have Masters degrees, schools are small and teachers are responsive. Pasi Sahlberg, an expert on Finnish education, says the English system is “testing children to destruction.”

Mercifully, Scotland is closer to the Finnish than the English path thanks to the new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) which has no externally-marked exams until the age of 16. Scottish education now aims to develop deeper learning with pupils truly understanding subjects rather than just regurgitating facts and figures – a change devised by the last Labour/Lib Dem Scottish Government and implemented by the SNP. In other words, there is a settled will in Scotland to have an educational system which spends less time examining and dividing pupils, hands more power to teachers, combines practical and abstract knowledge and crosses subject boundaries in learning.

The two systems are very, very different and getting more different by the year. But is that an argument for independence? After all, education is devolved – that’s how Scotland has been able to develop a distinctive education system in the first place unaffected by different southern thinking.

There are two important points to make here. First, if every policy was controlled and financed in Scotland, Scottish outlooks on energy, foreign policy, immigration, Crown Estates land, broadcasting, defence and economic policy could be developed too. As it is – despite our cornucopia of energy resources – Scots can only use planning policy to achieve the popular goal of reliance on renewable rather than nuclear power. UK spending priorities mean our energy-rich islands lack super-connectors to export to the National Grid, an oft-promised review of energy pricing (which favours southern producers) has been shelved again and renewables comprise a measly 4.2 per cent share of Britain’s overall energy mix against an EU average of 14.2 per cent. Offshore renewables will never thrive in this half-hearted UK environment.

Second, Scottish attempts to create progressive devolved policies are constantly handicapped by the unequal taxation, welfare and economic policies of conservative England. Pasi Sahlberg notes: “In Finland, overall [educational] attainment only began to improve as a result of the investment in equality. In contrast, the UK suffers from broad income inequality, and reforms to schooling alone won’t change that.”

This is why so many Scots want to be free to realise and develop a different political culture – the one they’ve been voting for over long decades.

So let’s park the deadlocked wrangle over currency and get on with the real independence debate.