Tough on children. Tough on the cause of children.

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.






What a panic’s in their breastie!

What a different two (or three actually) polls make.

First, the Panelbase poll conducted by the Yes campaign shows a record high of 47% support for independence among women with the gender gap virtually closed.  Hurrah for us!  And especially Women for Independence who right from the onset – even before Yes Scotland was formed actually – realised that women would take longer to make their minds up, that women needed to be listened to rather than talked at in this campaign and be offered space beyond traditional political hierarchies in which to engage. Our instincts have proven to be spot on.

Second, the sensational YouGov poll for the Sunday Times putting Yes ahead for the first time in the campaign.  It’s a slender 2 points but the momentum is all ours.  A wiser owl than me told me of recent Irish referenda experience.  In each and every one, the vote started shifting in the last few weeks.  Once it does, it doesn’t stop: all the other side can hope to do is slow down the shift enough to prevent it reaching the finish line.  It looks like the efforts the No campaign have made in the last week to achieve this have failed.

But hard hats on and heads down (though our tails are clearly up).  To coin a phrase, there is no room for complacency.  There’s a lot to do and everyone who wants to see Yes win the day on 18th September must redouble their efforts, continuing to target the key voter groups of Labour supporters, working class voters, women and people aged under 40.  According to Peter Kellner at YouGov, these are the voters who have shifted the most in the last few weeks.  Everyone in local Yes and grassroots groups must focus on reaching more of them, each and every day between now and the 18th.

As for the No campaign?  Well, you can promise jam today, jam tomorrow and jam the next day but it won’t wash.  Like dodgy market traders with a palette of shop-soiled goods to offload before they perish, they are frantically trying to cobble a “more devo” offer together.

Like the offer they should have allowed to go on the ballot paper from the start.  Or even the offer they should have made months ago.

But then, they promised us more devo at the start of this campaign.  And Messrs Naw, Nay and Never managed to come up with competing claims that amounted to a begrudged attempt to hold on to as much as they can and give away as little as they thought they could get away with.  Who’ll believe them now? The Scottish people are not buying I’m afraid.

The hard hats are needed because we are also going to be assaulted with an aerial bombardment of fear and smear like no other.  The British establishment is fighting for its continued grasp on power and control.  The Labour party is fighting for its very political existence in Scotland, if not elsewhere.  David Cameron is possibly fighting for his job.  What is about to rain down on us will be unprecedented in its severity, weight and virulence.  So this is a time for cool heads, calm hearts and onwards, forever onwards.  One doorstep at a time.

That’s presuming of course that they can stop fighting like ferrets in a sack.  It’s already started.

Unnamed backbench Conservative MPs have started calling for Cameron’s head on a plate:  “If Lord North went in 1782 for losing the American colonies, I can’t see how Cameron can stay, frankly.”  Note the language there:  it betrays how they really view Scotland.

Cameron is being blamed for allowing Alex Salmond to out-strategise him by one former Minister, especially on the timing of the referendum.  Again, betraying that they understand nothing of what is going on in Scotland right now.

And also, that it is still all about them.  Secret talks are apparently being held to force a leadership contest by parachuting Boris in through a parliamentary by-election.  The calculations on what happens if Scotland votes yes are all about shoring up their rump and being in a position to hold onto their seats at the UK election in 2015.

But the Tories are not just fighting among themselves – they’re turning their fire on their erstwhile Naw partners, Labour.  Apparently, it’s all also Labour’s fault for failing to deliver its vote.  Which again mistakes that this is about parties and even, as I opined here, that Labour has a core vote these days in Scotland.  The Scottish Tories are rock solid – but then that was to be expected.  It’s Labour whose support is haemorraghing.

Poor Douglas Alexander is the one coming under fire with particularly nasty personalised attacks.  Why him?  He isn’t the leader of Better Together – Alistair Darling is.  Many other Labour figures, including Scottish ones, have played much more senior roles.  The attacks on him whiff of jealousy, of score settling and of seeing off his credentials as a Labour leadership contender.  Yet, if any senior Labour figure has tried to create a positive narrative for the Naw lot, it’s him.  At various points, he’s been pushed out of the picture by others jostling to lead the front line.  With very few following his messaging.  Why?  Because they all thought this would be a skoosh and it was a platform for them to see out their twilight years basking in shared glory or from which to jettison them into the limelight and potential leadership roles. It seems to me that he and Brown are the two working their hardest to retrieve the situation.

But therein lies part of the problem.  For all that Gordon Brown is still a respected political figure in Scotland – and revered by the media to embarrassingly gauche levels – he is still yesterday’s man.  He may understand UK politics but having served his entire career on that stage, he is out of touch with the dynamic of Scottish politics.  He – and others – do not get us anymore.  That is at the heart of their problem.

As it is for the whole Naw movement, as Rory Stewart – he of the failed attempt to create hands across the border and build symbolic cairns and other irrelevant nonsense – attests. “A Yes vote would represent a failure of the entire political class. I think it’s the greatest constitutional issue we have faced for 300 years and it has not been treated like that. In the 19th century, this would have been like the great reform act. It would have engaged the whole nation and its politicians for years.”

Yet, the debate that Scotland has been having has been like our own great reform act, our own democratic renewal, with people of all ages enthused, engaged, debating and deliberating.  It has captured our imaginations and our attention.  The whole nation has been enthralled.  If the rest of the UK (but primarily England, for this is what they mean when they say “we”) failed to notice, or care, or contribute positively, that’s its problem.

But “we” as Scotland, as a nation, have awoken and to tar us with the brush of indifference is inaccurate and unfair.

Our political class – on the Yes side at least – have not been found wanting.  There is no failure of leadership here.

But it’s not actually about them.  What has happened in Scotland isn’t about them, but about us.  All of us.

There’s no failure, simply success.  To get to where we are today, with Yes leading by two points twelve days before the vote, having had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us from on high by the British establishment, big business, world leaders, the UK Government, the British media, rich people with deep pockets, and all those with their hands currently on the levers of power, is little short of astonishing.

It’s not a failure but a triumph.  Of the will of the Scottish people to stand up and say no more.  No more waiting.  No more empty promises. We want this one opportunity to create a better life for everyone who lives here.  And most especially of all, we want the chance to create a better future for our children, our grandchildren and the generations yet to come.



In September, we vote for Scotland, not Salmond

Today will see the demolition of one of the last totems of Thatcherism left in Scotland.  When right to buy is abolished, gone – at long last – will be the perfidious policy which attempted and nearly succeeded in dismantling our infrastructure of social housing.

It wasn’t wrong then and it isn’t wrong now for people to want to own their own home.  What was wrong was the way the policy was constructed:  taking houses, built with public money to ensure everyone had access to a decent home, out of public ownership and into private hands at knock down prices, leaving local authorities drowning under a sea of construction debt they could no longer afford to service, never mind begin to pay off.

And which is the government in Scotland to remove this blot from our policy landscape?  A Labour one, which had 8 years leading an administration in which to attempt the feat?  Labour, that fabled creature which works for the “working people”, which in its time in office built only a handful of council houses and only a handful more of housing association ones?  No. An SNP government is what’s done it.

Actually, scratch that. It’s Salmond’s government what’s done it.

Now, readers who’ve been with this blog over the last three years will know that I’m not always our First Minister’s biggest fan.  I’ve criticised him here when I’ve felt criticism was due.  And like any leader or politician, he has his weaknesses and foibles. He is after all only a man, a person like all the rest of us.

But he also has outstanding strengths.  And those are the reasons why he’s been SNP leader not just once, but twice.  And also Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister to boot.  Nearly half of the Scottish electorate (or at least the half that voted) voted for him and his party in 2011.  Clearly, the old guard Labour figures returning to the Scottish fray after decades of plying their trade at Westminster, now besmirching the SNP and what it stands for, trying to take us all back to the 1970s in a political timewarp, appear oblivious to this not inconsequential fact.

The pace of change might have irked many (including me) since 2007, but there is no denying that Alex Salmond has been a radical and reforming First Minister, leading a government which has improved the lot of Scots everywhere. Free prescriptions, free tuition, the council tax freeze, lower class sizes, the abolition of bridge tolls, ambitious climate change targets, laws to protect children from online abuse, to protect our shores and marine life and to better protect women against domestic abuse, and policies to extend childcare provision, to give all children a better start in the first years of their lives and a free school meal until they are eight.

All this and more.  That’s what Alex Salmond has done for Scotland as First Minister.

So, when I hear from some in this referendum campaign that they’re not that keen on voting yes (they’re not a definite no either) because they “don’t like that Alex Salmond” or they wonder what “he’s ever done for us” or the mantra “he’s just like all the rest, they never do what they say they will“, I find myself not only wondering why a no vote matters so much to Scottish Labour that they will lie to their own people to achieve it but also in the most unusual position of rushing to Alex Salmond’s defence.

What’s he done for you?  Some of that list above has made your and your family’s life better.  Didn’t he put all that in the manifestos you voted for?  They said they’d abolish prescriptions, maintain the free bus fare scheme, keep the council tax freeze and get rid of tuition fees – hasn’t his party done that?

And then I give a very recent example.  This Scottish Government under Alex Salmond’s leadership has kept the wolf of Westminster cuts at the door, carefully managing the money they get every year to limit the cuts and the impact of the recession.  Seeing an issue with youth unemployment, Alex Salmond and his government determined that the Tories were not going to get their way in writing off another generation to joblessness, hopelessness and lost life chances.  So a Minister for Youth employment was created and funds found to guarantee every young person leaving school in Scotland training, further education or a job even.

And it’s worked.  Six months after they left school in 2013, 90% of Scotland’s young people are in positive destinations.  That’s more of them in higher or further education, in training or in work.  And where they are not yet in these destinations, more of them are actively being supported to find something that suits them.  That 90% is the highest ever rate of positive destinations.  The SNP is doing better at giving our young people a decent future than previous Labour-Lib Dem administrations – and they were working when we lived in a land of plenty – and doing better than they’re managing in England.

Not bad for a man that doesn’t do anything for folk or apparently doesn’t do what he says he will. And as I also point out to these folk, you don’t have to like a man to respect that he’s the right man at this time to lead our government and to respect that he’s actually pretty good at it.

Why? Because he cares about what happens to the people of Scotland and about making Scotland a better country for us all to live in.  And that’s his number one priority.  The SNP has made a pretty decent fist of things in challenging circumstances.  This has been a government which has been good for Scotland because it has worked for Scotland’s good.

And isn’t what we’ve got a decent starting point in September to take our country forward?  Look at what we’ve done with the powers we’ve been given, think what else we could do with all the powers and resources we need and a government focused primarily on what is best for us, our families, our communities?

Ultimately, though, what I tell folk is this.

The vote in September isn’t for Salmond, but for Scotland and for us.

It’s not really even about him either, but about us.  All of us.

He won’t be First Minister for ever – he is after all 59.  And the point of voting yes in September is that it then gives us – all of us – the chance to always get the governments we vote for.  And if we decide that we’ve had enough of the SNP and a better offer comes along, then that is what we can vote for.  And get.

And would you really rather vote no and have David Cameron, Ed Miliband or even Johann Lamont in charge?