A man whose opinion I respect surprised me twice by recommending the First Minister’s recent speech on education and then by justifying his approval in saying : “she’s discovered Blairism.” Can that be true?
The speech in question was effectively Nicola Sturgeon’s opening of the new campaigning season, which is likely to take us right through until next May’s Scottish Parliament elections. It was also clearly intended to set the tone of her administration. It reiterated her commitment to reducing inequality and eliminating educational disadvantage.
It was delivered in a school and contained a minor piece of news – more primary schools to qualify for the £100m Attainment Fund (which has already been announced.) More detail was promised in the Programme for Government, to be published in September.
She also announced a standardised method of assessment – a National Improvement Framework. There was a whiff of the New Labour reliance on school testing there, but the phrase which really caught my friend’s attention was this: “What matters in improving education is what can be shown to work.”
That has more than just an echo of Blair’s 1997 speech burying “outdated ideology” and declaring: “what counts is what works.” That in a nutshell was “Blairism” – out with Old Labour ideological purity, in with New Labour populist realism. Does the First Minister’s choice of phrase also herald a move from ideology to pragmatism for the SNP government?
The first SNP administration from 2007-2011 was indeed marked by pragmatism. The party was surprised to be in Government and, as a minority administration, had to negotiate its budgets and its major reforms through parliament by compromise with the other parties. This was helped by a clear division of responsibilities. First Minister Alex Salmond reserved the politics for himself, a game he plays extremely well, and left the administration to his key ministers. Nicola Sturgeon ran health, accounting for a third of all spending, and John Swinney ran the finances and thus practically everything else.
The result was that in the 2011 election campaign the SNP could rely not only on a reaction against the austerity programme of the UK coalition, but on its own solid reputation for competence. It had demonstrated it could govern effectively, upset few people and won many admirers beyond its traditional base.
But the SNP majority in that year took away the need to subordinate ideology to consensus. The commitment to hold a referendum on independence became the driving obsession, along with eye-catching but unproven policies, such as the maintenance of no university tuition fees.
That marked Scotland as distinctively different from England, but did nothing to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education. Reducing the “attainment gap” between the educational achievements of children from rich and poor homes stalled and was actually worse in Scotland than it was in England.
In health, increases in spending lagged behind England, with predictable effects on standards and waiting times. In environment, the much-trumpeted tough emissions reduction targets which the SNP set itself were missed four years in a row and the party’s commitment to be “green” was shown to be skin deep with Nicola Sturgeon’s use of a personalised helicopter to fly her around the country for the 2015 election campaign.
In its second administration the party proved to be centralising and controlling. Council tax was frozen, reducing the flexibility of local authorities. Fire services were amalgamated. Further education colleges, whose budgets had been raided to pay for the university tuition fee exemption, were merged into city conglomerates.
Most dramatically, regional police services were merged into one giant quango – the unloved Police Scotland. It may have saved money, but it seems also to have brought an end to community policing, with complaints of increased stop and search of innocent young people and armed policemen on the streets of Highland towns.
A turn to pragmatism would entail modifying, if not reversing, some of these policies.
This post first appeared on the David Hume Institute site and is reproduced here with permission