Crucible of democracy;Opinion

21st May 1999 at 01:00
The prominence of tuition feesin the post-election debate is an early signal of distinct Scottish politics,says Lindsay Paterson

THE SYMBOLISM could hardly be bettered. Not only did an educational issue - tuition fees - dominate the post-election debate about how Scottish democracy should work: the issue also can be presented as being about social justice - about the principle of free education for all. And that's what matters. Regardless of the particular outcome in the partnership between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, what this episode signals is something quite important for the way the new Scottish politics will function.

First of all, most obviously, education will keep centre stage. That has, in fact, always been the case in Scottish government. The Scottish Education Department was always of higher status in the Scottish Office than the analogous English department was in Whitehall. But now we have education at the core of a programme. Moreover, it's in the core in ways that are already quite different from Tony Blair's mantra and David Blunkett's new dirigisme.

The only way in which Labour and the Liberal Democrats could resist SNP accusations of betraying the Scottish tradition of open access was by insisting that fees could be compatible with measures to promote wide access. So, in Scotland, we have returned to old dirigisme - to the belief that political action can alleviate the effects of poverty. That social democratic starting point will not be forgotten.

This is because the Liberal Democrats will keep up the pressure on Labour to show that they really haven't sold out. They will be able to remind Labour of the 43 per cent of MSPs who are to Labour's left, and of the merely tenuous hold which Labour now has in many constituencies.

The resulting shifts of emphasis in educational policy will grow to become matters of principle. For example, this new context will ensure that the more radical interpretations of new community schools will prevail - as agents of social reform rather than as Scottish instances of the semi-privatised action zones in England. That will help to entrench Scottish comprehensive schooling more firmly than it already is.

The same gradual evolution of Scottish distinctiveness will probably also mean that any new contracts under the Private Finance Initiative will require that the public sector retains ownership of the assets. In due course, that will not only confirm the Scottish predilection for public rather than private action. It will also probably lead in the end to taxes going up, and so to a break from the orthodoxy which Labour willingly inherited from the Tories.

These pressures will have consequences elsewhere. Take targets. The current system is now discredited methodologically, and is highly unlikely to work in actually raising standards.

It is also quite inconsistent with local democracy. One of the most gratifying results in the local elections (and this is not a partisan point) was the vote in Moray against a rather arrogant council majority even though that council has consistently done well in the league tables of performance. People seem not to want results at the expense of consultation.

So targets will move much more in the direction of self-evaluation. Linking to the earlier point, targets will also probably be more closely tied to overcoming social exclusion. More generally, the coalition partnership is likely to push the Parliament towards fulfilling the aspiration towards consultation with both professionals and lay people - and with the civic Scotland which brought the Scottish Parliament into being.

The Liberal Democrats will be acutely aware that if they become, in effect, just extra fodder for the Labour whip then they will have destroyed the hopes of a more inclusive politics. And, to be fair, both they and some sections of the Labour group have a decent record of promoting decentralised policy-making based on dialogue. So expect to see a slower legislative process, one where the price of Liberal Democrat agreement is that things should not be rushed.

The proposed inquiry into student finance is just the start. Expect also a growing scepticism about the role of the civil service and the Inspectorate - the gradual erosion of the Scottish leadership class.

Will this be old or new? Neither, at first. Reforming public policy-making was never going to take only a few days. But with Labour ceding absolute power, and with the Liberal Democrats acting as the conduits for the parliament's civic and social democratic conscience, the newness of it all will grow.

Abolishing tuition fees immediately would have been a spectacular but histrionic start. In the long term, the debate this issue has provoked about social justice and about government by consent will matter much more profoundly.

Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University.

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