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politics, scotland

Testing in primary schools and a review of police governance are hardly going to quell the complaints that Sturgeon has lost her radical edge.

The reintroduction of testing in primary schools and a review of police governance are hardly going to quell the complaints that the Scottish Government has lost its radical edge; that’s if you accept it had one in the first place.

Testing was originally a Tory idea, warmly welcomed by Ruth Davidson. And the First Minister is on record as having “full confidence” in Sir Stephen House right up, er, until his departure.

And still no SNP MSP has spoken out about the circumstances surrounding the death in police custody of Sheku Bayoh; or if they have, I haven’t heard it.

Now that the constitutional debate is firmly on the back burner, this majority Government is – really for the first time since 2011 – being assessed on its achievements and not everyone is happy.

The Government, it is alleged, has sold itself as a left-wing alternative to Labour while pursuing essentially centrist, if not right-wing agenda. As the STV online commentator Stephen Daisley put it: “[The SNP] have secured the support of much of the Scottish left without once venturing beyond the low-tax, pro-business, neo-liberal centre ground.”

Of course, many of the critics, like Mr Daisley, a shrill cheerleader for Liz Kendall, or David Torrance of this parish, aren’t left wingers at all. They’re just interested in painting the Nationalists as hypocrites.

But the left has taken up the cudgels too. The independence referendum sage Gerry Hassan has condemned Nicola Sturgeon’s failure to redistribute wealth. The Green Party says the SNP have sold the pass on fracking and haven’t been truly radical on land reform.

The First Minister is even being criticised for dilly dallying over a repeat referendum and allegedly suppressing an independence motion at the SNP conference. It’s a strange day when an SNP leader is accused of not being nationalist enough.
Labour in Scotland are hardly left wing anymore but that hasn’t stopped MSPs such as Iain Gray condemning her move to cut £250 million from air passenger duty while allocating much less to improving standards in schools.

Labour supporters also mutter about how policies such as free university tuition and the council tax benefit the better off; though somehow, when it comes to election time, Labour invariably end up supporting these policies.

The SNP get very cross when they are accused of being New Labour in disguise. They point out that they support unilateral nuclear disarmament, state education and public provision of health. They were calling for relaxed immigration long before Yvette Cooper.

The SNP voted against the UK Welfare Bill and have moved to mitigate, if not yet abolish, the hated bedroom tax. They’ve abolished prescription charges, created a gender balanced cabinet and ended the right to buy.

Challenged on wealth and tax, Nationalists say that the Scottish Government doesn’t actually have the power to raise a 50p rate of tax to pay for school teachers in poor areas, as Labour’s Kezia Dugdale has been urging.

They have a point. The opposition parties, Labour and Tory, seem to be under the impression that the Scotland Bill tax reforms are already in place. They are not.

The new Scottish rate of income tax that comes into force in April is from the previous 2012 Scotland Act and only allows Holyrood to increase or decrease all tax bands in concert.

Powers to raise or lower the basic rate of income tax by 3p have been in place since 1999 and have not been used. Scottish parties talk the talk on tax but never quite get round to doing anything.

The uncomfortable reality for supporters of more progressive taxation

is that there aren’t many wealthy people around. Only 18,000 would pay the 50p “additional” rate proposed by Labour and the SNP and most would avoid it. Scotland may be a wealthy country, but little of it lingers north of the Border.

The real tax challenge is whether any party has the bottle to increase the present upper rate from 40 per cent to 45 per cent. That could bring in real money, around £500m, and it would be furiously opposed by many of those who claim the SNP aren’t left wing enough.

But in the meantime, the Scottish Government has also promised a social security bill to abolish the bedroom tax and challenge universal credit. It also proposes to reintroduce rent controls, which will bring howls of anguish from landlords and few tears from the rest of us.

So, is the SNP under Ms Sturgeon left or right? Well, it’s a reformist social democratic party, not a socialist one, rather like old Labour. This means it seeks to mitigate the impact of the capitalist market rather than abolish it.

Ms Sturgeon’s commitment to social justice is entirely sincere as anyone who knows her will testify. In fact, she is more of a social democrat than she is a pure-bred Nationalist.

But don’t expect her to nationalise the top 200 companies, seize the North Sea oil industry or introduce punitive taxation if that means high earners scuttle across the border.

Conservative leaning commentators who complain about this because – ha, ha – the SNP aren’t really left wing are missing the point. The First Minister often says she wants to make Scotland one of the most business-friendly countries in Europe. That is a bit of a give-away.

Anyway, the first responsibility of a nationalist party is always going to be to remain in office. This is not and never has been a Marxist party. Again, the clue is in the name: the Scottish National Party.

Ms Sturgeon has gone further than most politicians in terms of putting her money where her mouth is. She has made improving the education performance of children from poor families the centrepiece of her administration. Again, this is a meritocratic objective, not a particularly socialist one.

She will have to deliver on this and it won’t be easy. The truth is that you can’t change the class structure by tinkering with testing. The failure of working-class males – and increasingly it is young men – to achieve meaningful qualifications is a complex problem.

It has as to do with the collapse of industrial culture and a failure to rise to the challenge of gender equality. Teachers have lost confidence in their ability to get through to them or even to maintain discipline in class.

There has been a culture of educational defeatism: a corrosive view in some schools that future “Neets” simply aren’t worth the effort. Let them find their worth in the labour market.

But Ms Sturgeon is not prepared to accept this and has staked her political reputation on narrowing this “attainment gap”. As a social democrat, she remains committed to the comprehensive system, unlike the Tories and New Labour, so she can’t resort to experiments with vouchers or free schools, not that these have been a spectacular success.

What she does have is immense authority, a united party, unprecedented voter appeal and a genuine ability to speak to and for the Scottish nation. This is a national problem and only a national effort involving business, education, government has any hope of dealing with it.

So, no. I’m not writing Nicola Sturgeon off yet.

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About iain2macwhirter

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