Do we abandon the 'dented shield' to protect education?

24th June 2011 at 01:00
Cuts are not welcomed by many people, but they are pragmatic and, in the main part, ideological

Whatever the policies of the new Government in Holyrood will be, the Coalition in Westminster has told us that the cuts will be continuing with gusto. It is interesting how these ideas have now become mainstream.

That "there is no alternative" or "the only show in town" has become a mantra for all the political parties - and indeed for most of the general public - with us arguing among ourselves which areas should be protected and all sectors pleading a "special case".

Do we want to continue with this, meaning less of that? More teachers or no university fees? More nurses or free prescriptions? It was encapsulated in the recent EIS ballot: no compulsory redundancies but a wage freeze and other changes of conditions, often affecting the most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves.

However, the election of a majority SNP Government puts those of us who think that there should be a more pro- active campaign against the cuts in a new, potentially stronger, position. This is primarily because it is possible to argue that the vote in part was a protest against the cuts - and indeed most commentators outside the mainstream defeated parties do just that. That is why, at least partly, all the main parties in Scotland were eclipsed by the SNP - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat were all associated with the cuts. This means that there is a case for arguing there is no meaningful mandate in Scotland for the Westminster Coalition austerity package, just as there was no mandate for the poll tax of 20 years ago.

Of course, doing something other than protesting about the cuts can be problematic but there is a potential strategy we might campaign for.

The local authorities and the Scottish Parliament could argue that as the cuts have no mandate here, there will be a series of no cuts budget deficits announced. Effectively, the local authorities and the Scottish Government would go into a deficit, to be dealt with at a later date as the economy grows in the future.

If Westminster did not want that to happen, it would have to put in its own people to run Scotland and that would be worth seeing in the current climate. Besides, why should any of the other parties - in particular the SNP and Labour who between them control the vast majority of the councils in Scotland - put in place policies which have such a strong negative impact on their core support?

There is no doubt that this would be a challenging decision for any local authority and the Scottish Government to take, particularly as they are wedded to a managerialist approach to the cuts, ie, that we need to implement them the best way possible, protecting where we can. But it may be that this approach - known traditionally, and particularly in Labour and trade union circles, as the "dented shield" - is not the best way to handle these cuts.

There are two reasons for this. First, the scale of the cuts means the dismantling of aspects of a cherished service, such as education or health, which might not easily be put back, even in the "good times" in the future, assuming there are some.

Now, there might be some who argue that this is a benefit (questions which could not be broached before are now fair game), but I think this is a mistake. It is to see these cuts as some way of effecting change, as people will not be able to oppose them. This, however, is a dangerous approach, particularly as positive change, particularly educational change, is never done well in a climate of fear and cuts. Grudging, forced, nothing we can do, just get on with it, is not a good way to improve a service.

Second, these cuts are not just pragmatic but are, I would argue, in the main part ideological. The Conservatives, in particular, are implementing a specific world view of the relationship between state and society and this might need a more political opposition than just complaining about indivi- dual cuts.

Margaret Thatcher's call of "no such thing as society", which she was never able to implement fully, is a key directing aim of this group of Tories. For example, there seems to be little shortage of money for key privatised policies or pet projects such as free schools.

Indeed, proposals to alter taxation policy mean that leaving money to charity is now going to be tax deductible, so the rich will be able to leave money to their local private school, for example, thereby widening the funding gap and reducing income to the Treasury. It is a move from welfare to philanthropy.

Whether the SNP Government goes down the line of a deficit budget will ultimately depend on two things: whether a couple of years of its rule can show the possibilities of an independent Scotland, and whether a move away from the reactive ideas of the "dented shield" to a proactive campaign of protecting our services is recognised as an urgent necessity before it is too late.

Henry Maitles is professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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