A record number of children were born in Scotland in 2008, the highest in fact since the turn of the century. Yet, the parents of those 60, 041 babes might just be regretting their decision to start a family in that year. Just as the parents of the near million children born in the last sixteen years might be gulping a little right now. But they won’t be nearly as worried as the parents under 21 of at least 5,000 babies born in the last couple of years.
Unwittingly, they have all provided meek austerity fodder for the aspirations of both Labour and Conservative parties in their quest for wins in marginal seats to propel them into government at Westminster next year.
Step forward children of Scotland, for you, who have no votes and little voice are about to pay a high price for the profligacy of us all.
I thought I had heard and seen the worst of what New Labour had to offer when, fresh into government in 1997, it decided to remove the lone parent premium from child benefit. That doyen of fairness and social justice – who preaches pooling and sharing and solidarity and unity now that it suits him – Gordon Brown was the one who decided to effectively freeze child benefit for lone parents for years.
But just when I thought the lesson had been learned – or at least, one of the lessons Margaret Curran keeps on assuring us Labour will get round to learning one day – up pops Ed Balls to promise that everyone has to pay the price of austerity. Trying to show that he is not just Balls by name, the Shadow Chancellor decided it was time to get down on the kids. If Labour wins the UK election next year it will cut child benefit in real terms for all families by keeping increases to 1 per cent in the first two years of the next Parliament. This, he decreed, was evidence that Labour won’t “duck the difficult decisions” saving £400 million from family finances in order to cut the deficit. Apparently, Labour won’t spend money it can’t afford – so it will make sure families find it harder to afford essentials like food, school uniforms and shoes too.
When the government deficit is in the trillions, when even the Scottish block grant amounts to tens of billions, £400 million over two years is chickenfeed. Chickenfeed that is in government spending, but the universality of the cap means it will disproportionately hurt those families on the lowest incomes more. Yep, in favour of universality when it suits them, when there is squeezing and saving to be achieved.
Still, Balls proved himself to be the equivalent of George Osborne’s warm up act.
The measures he and indeed, Iain Duncan Smith announced today at Conservative party conference are so abhorrent in terms of their potential for harm to children that you wonder if they employed Cruella de Vil, Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother and Rumpelstiltskin to concoct them.
Osborne saw Balls on his 1% cap on child benefit and raised him – a two year freeze on all working age benefits, including child benefit and working and child tax credit. “We are going to finish what we have started. What I offer is a serious plan for a grown-up country. An economic plan for hardworking people.” Clearly, families in work, on poverty pay, with dependent children do not qualify as hardworking. And neither do young people.
Overall, the measures will save £3 billion on the welfare bill. But never fear, those big companies who avoid paying their fair share of tax? A clampdown. Again. Which will bring in millions or even, hundreds of millions. So big business goes on making big profits, cocking a snook at the idea of paying its share, while families with children suffer an unprecedented squeeze.
The Tories also announced “an ambitious package to end the fate of 18 to 21 year olds languishing on unemployment benefits“. Six months to get a job or else. An apprenticeship, a training scheme or community work, for an allowance, not a wage. The Prime Minister refused to, or failed to clarify, whether young adults with children would be excluded. Which means they probably won’t. No benefits, a paltry allowance, sanctions if you don’t. Welcome to the Tories’ idea of a grown up country which punishes children for daring to be born.
Some children deserve to be punished more. Any child which dares to be born to feckless parents who have “fallen into a damaging spiral” – substance misuse or debt or one of the other myriad symptoms of poverty – they will have the dignity of money removed from them and get vouchers instead. They might as well hang a bell round their neck while they’re at it. On one level, they have a point. It is important to ensure that children’s basic needs are met. But you don’t do that by further diminishing their parents’ capacity: you help to create control over their lives and their circumstances, investing in their assets, in their capacity, competence and confidence.
And listening to it and trying to digest it all, the question keeps returning – what have innocent children – thousands, hundreds of thousands of children – done to deserve this? Why are they the ones to pay the price of austerity? Where is the compassion for our most vulnerable, voiceless citizens? Where is the acknowledgement that for our economy and society to thrive in the years to come we will need the next generation to have been invested in, to have been given the best possible start in life so that they might go on to have decent life chances.
Every child should enjoy equality of opportunity, no matter their circumstances. The opportunity of a warm, dry home. Of a childhood free from the stress and strain of financial worries and debt. Of nourishing meals as a given, not an occasion. Of rights given freely by those with responsibility for their well-being. Of being valued, cherished, nurtured. Of growing up safe and secure.
Instead, Labour and Tories are engaged in a race to the bottom, to determine which party can be toughest on children and toughest on the cause of children.
And we are powerless to prevent it going ahead.
So we are back to doing what we did remarkably well during the #indyref campaign – Yes folk sitting in meetings with other Yes folk agreeing with each other.
But this round of meetings is necessary. There are lots of enthusiastic newbies – folk who just a few short months ago, wouldn’t have dreamed of sitting in a draughty hall talking politics. Now they are queuing to get in: all are most welcome. As are those who’ve been involved before – for decades, years or just days.
We need to vent a little behind closed doors – it can’t all be positive and onwards and upwards, without first letting off a little steam. People are masking a lot of pain and there needs to be a collective howling at the moon.
As long as it lasts for five minutes only. And most definitely isn’t played out on social media or in endless protests about how the vote was rigged or how the meeja did us down. Or how we was robbed. Or how folk were duped.
This much we all know already: playing it all out on a loop over and over won’t get us anywhere. I get the feeling from some that they are surprised at what the British establishment threw at us to thwart our ambitions, that Shock and Awe in the last week was unexpected by some. Still, now you know: welcome to the world of the SNP for all of its existence.
Yet, in the last ten years in particular, the party worked out how to deal with it, to work with it (needs must) and how to get round it to reach the hearts and minds of Scottish voters. The party learned to leave aside the politics of grievance and engage with the aspirations of Scottish people. There’s a wee lesson in that for all the Yessers, about what works and what doesn’t in this game.
It would have been helpful for Yes Scotland to have hung around even for a couple of weeks beyond the vote to facilitate the greetin’ part of these meetings. But apparently all the staff were let go the day after the vote, the Chief Executive is apparently in or en route to his holiday home in Florida and the organisation is toast. Not even a cheery email newsletter goodbye or well done or thanks to the many thousands of volunteers who helped to pay the wages at Hope Street, as well as actually fought the campaign out there . Ah well. Still, at least we ended the campaign with more Facebook likes than David Cameron.
So, fifteen minutes of howling and gnashing and wailing is required. But then, it’s onwards. Time not to get mad, but even.
Everyone agrees that we need to keep the movement alive. Some are already way ahead of the curve – a new board for Common Weal; a funding venture for new media activity over at Bella Caledonia; a merger between Newsnet and Derek Bateman; a Women for Independence event which was over-subscribed not once, but three times (we’ve settled for 1000); plans for a RIC conference in November that over 7000 have said they want to go to.
And all those folk joining the SNP, Scottish Greens and the SSP. Funnily enough, some of the self-same meeja who did the cause of independence down are sceptical about the membership claims.
Let me re-assure them. Having volunteered for an hour in SNP HQ processing online applications, I’m not actually sure that the official tally is keeping up. When I left after my hour, there were nearly 38,000 applications to be processed. We hadn’t made much more than a very small dint in the total. And that’s only the online ones. The phones were going constantly and the postie had delivered plenty by snail mail.
It is a quite astonishing and almost inexplicable phenomenon. Of the few applications I processed, there is no real pattern in membership: there are men, women, young, old, rural, urban. But a lot from the West of Scotland, a lot of trade union members and a fair few with university degrees and from the professions too. Labour should be very afraid.
And then there’s a new SNP leadership to be determined, hopefully after a contest of ideas. And a new Programme for Government – please make it radical and bold, something we can all get our teeth into.
And new powers coming in 2015 to get acquainted with. There’s also the new, more powers’ process which is owned currently by the politicians but which many of us – especially on the Yes side – think should incorporate some kind of citizens’ element. How to achieve their contribution is something that needs worked out.
This public consultation element is actually key. Most polls over the years have suggested that a majority of Scots want control over everything but defence and foreign affairs to be devolved – devo max – or at least, a devo much more than most of the parties have offered to date. Labour will try to drag the offer down to its level, from the starting point of the Conservatives’ Strathclyde Commission proposals. Ensuring the Scottish public – brimful of enthusiasm for the politics of ideas and still having #indyref related conversations on trains, in pubs and in workplaces – gets a say and gets what it wants requires resources and resourcefulness.
And what to do about all those communities and people who not only registered to vote for the very first time, but actually voted in unprecedented numbers? Who voted for their one chance in a lifetime, who believed in hope, who got that this was absolutely about transferring power and control? Do we just shrug our shoulders and say sorry, it’s all going to stay the same? Do we let them slip back into disengagement and disenfranchisement?
Then there’s the need to build a bridge, rather than a trench (as Andrew Wilson so deftly put it) between the 45% and the 55%. We can probably ignore the top 25% of the No grouping. They’re the diehard Unionists and the Scottish part of the establishment and the uber rich in the country who really don’t get that we need a fairer society all round. And of course implacable pensioners (though not all are).
But that leaves 30% to coax across – some are already Yes buts who on the day became reluctant Nos. Others rationalised their decision to hold on to what they have by not being persuaded that Scotland could be a successful, independent country; that Scotland just isn’t ready yet to go it alone; that there are too many risks, uncertainties, unanswered questions about our economic potential.
So we need to work out how to remove these fears, but there is also something in leaving them alone to find their way home. Six billion of cuts to the Scottish block grant, interest rate rises, ongoing pay freezes, more austerity cuts from Westminster (whoever runs the show), the likelihood of Labour not winning the UK election next year and the distinct possibility of UKIP in coalition with the Tories – all this is bound to take its toll on the left-leaning middle classes of Scotland who voted for the comfort of a continued feather-bed courtesy of the current settlement.
Where next is the cry from the Yes movement? Well, immediately it’s off to Holyrood today to lend our family’s support for a good-natured celebration of all that we have achieved in the last few years and to make our contribution to the food bank collection.
After that? Who knows. All or at least some of the above. The swarm continues; some are jockeying for Queen Bee position (and I don’t mean Nicola Sturgeon) and a hierarchy is definitely forming, or being deliberately formed (check out the new look board of Common Weal…); though some worker bees stubbornly refuse to conform and seem content organising themselves. The fact that the first Where Next meeting in Edinburgh was organised by someone who just wants to keep it going, rather than any group or branch or body, speaks volumes.
This round of Yes meetings might be necessary but once the greetin’ is over and we’ve all had a go at determining where next and what next, can we just form a plan and get on with getting there? And vow to stop spending time sitting in rooms – real and virtual – agreeing with each other.
So, Nicola Sturgeon is a shoo-in for next SNP leader. Which means Scotland will have its first female First Minister. Hurrah.
Various potential others have ruled themselves out. Michael Russell, Roseanna Cunningham, John Swinney, Alex Neil and Humza Yousaf have all declared themselves not interested. Some of them have also nailed colours to the mast by joining #TeamSturgeon. So who’s missing? Well, the not insignificant Kenny MacAskill for one. Fiona Hyslop is another conspicuous by her silence. Two big front-bench beasts who may just have taken the weekend off, rather than the weekend to take soundings.
Whatever, a meaningful contest to replace Alex Salmond now seems unlikely. But Nicola should still be required to submit her nomination and set out her stall. Hopefully, it will not just mark steady as she goes but also give an indication of where she aims to take the party in the future. This bit is important, given the recent influx of new members to the party. She will need to offer enough for all these new and eager Yes supporters to make it worth their while, but also ensure the old guard are taken with her. No easy task actually.
There’s a lot of chatter about a post #the45 alliance of sorts, there’s also chatter about various bits of the movement setting themselves up as parties and a lot of chatter just generally on where next. The SNP leader has a key role to play in harnessing all that energy and enthusiasm and ensuring that what emerges is a coherent offering all working broadly in the same direction. There’s an appetite for an alliance approach to the 2015 UK election, with the various, diverse elements of the Yes movement not standing against each other and thereby dissipating and fracturing the vote. The SNP will have to give consideration to how it responds and how it engages. To assume that the SNP gets to put forward candidates in all seats or in those seats it chooses would be full of risk – there is a need to keep the spirit of the swarm approach evident in the referendum campaign going. Or else the SNP could be viewed as a block rather than a conduit to change.
And what change exactly? Devo more? Leading from the front for devo max? Or biding time until the opportunity arises to push for full independence again? Conceivably, all approaches could be part of the strategy but the point is that a strategy is needed that satisfies all appetites. And that requires careful and inclusive consideration. It cannot be for the SNP to determine on its own.
Nicola Sturgeon may be about to become SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister but she is also inheriting a role – a leadership one – in managing, co-ordinating and driving forward the ambitions of a much wider coalition. That’s a good deal more tricky.
But what of her deputy? Well, most are agreed that this is where it gets more interesting. There are several potential contenders and several options for the party. Someone from the Holyrood group, an MP or even an MEP? And if either of these last two, a constitutional difficulty to overcome. The Depute Leader of the SNP has until now become Depute First Minister – there’s no rule on this, for DFM is a position voted on by the Scottish Parliament and it would be for the SNP Holyrood group to put forward their nomination. So we could, in theory, have a separate deputy at party level and Ministerial level. But what would be the point really?
Except that it creates a leadership hub. Stewart Hosie or Angus Robertson could become deputy party leader, allowing Nicola Sturgeon to have a deputy in government and parliament of her choosing (if she’s smart she’ll take a keen interest in the party role too to make sure she gets someone she can work with and who complements her strengths and skills with their own).
So, John Swinney could become a DFM without portfolio, a wingman good at the detail and who could take charge of reform more widely, providing a much needed core approach to what has hitherto been for Ministers to determine how reform is approach and addressed. Or a young yin could be blooded – Humza for example. Or here’s a novel thought – the role could be offered to the Scottish Greens, as tangible evidence of a new approach to politics and the movement for independence/more powers.
But there are also other strategic and tactical considerations to be made on this, to balance two, not necessarily conflicting but also not clearly compatible demands either. First, Nicola Sturgeon will want to put together the team to lead the SNP to a third victory in the Scottish elections in 2016. Second, it is important to keep eyes on the prize of independence – or at least, devo max. Who is best placed to work with her on these objectives?
I suggested Shona Robison would make a fine deputy leader and First Minister. The two MSPs have known each other since they were teenagers and worked well and closely as a Ministerial team too. Shona was somewhat sidelined in the last Cabinet reshuffle but was able to devote her energies more fully to ensuring the Glasgow Commonwealth Games were a success. They were. Well done her.
She therefore has a proven Ministerial track record, but she also has a proven track record electorally. She was elected on the list for North East Scotland in 1999 and then for the constituency of Dundee East in 2003. She has turned a marginal SNP-Labour seat into an SNP stronghold. Her success in Dundee East allowed the party to build and take Dundee West. It paved the way for her husband, Stewart Hosie to become MP too. A strong SNP council group eventually became the dominant force and has formed the administration with an overall majority since 2012.
And vitally, her city transformed its SNP support into Yes votes – unlike many other SNP strongholds.
In truth, there are many key figures behind the Dundee success story but Shona knows what it takes to build – and to do so methodically and patiently – to deliver success.
Moreover, she is East coast, Nicola is West coast. The only demographic issue is that both are city MSPs. Yet, that might be what is required – for long enough, the SNP has been dominated by rural, North East interests (which did not translate into support for independence) and for too long, did not seem to know what was needed to make the break through in the central belt or in working class, traditionally Labour areas. A Nicola-Shona leadership would answer that and also allow for a different direction to be pursued by the party.
But if not Shona then who? Her husband Stewart Hosie has been touted and he would satisfy some, if not all of the above.
Keith Brown, MSP for Ochil and Minister for Transport and Veterans is another name being mentioned increasingly frequently in despatches. A safe pair of hands, unflappable and well liked. Crucially too, he straddles the fundie-gradualist (for which read, Neil-Salmond) wings of the party. He’s also a detail man and reliable and resilient. He was every SNP councillor’s go-to man on points of procedure and always – always – returned calls. His constituency is a rural/urban mix, of the Labour working class variety. He’s done a good job with his Ministerial portfolio and did I say he is liked by all? He’s not a divisive character but a unifying one.
The fact that he’s currently courting SNP folk as Facebook friends suggests he’s interested. Good on him if he is.