Dodgy sums, Ukip and dirty tactics

12th September 2014 at 01:00
Late campaign promises get short shrift at referendum event

Teachers at a Glasgow referendum debate have reflected wider discontent over the No's campaign's latest move - a late decision to push for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, which was announced this week after a tumultuous few days in which the national Yes vote surged forward.

The vigorous debate on Tuesday - which took place between education secretary Michael Russell for the Yes campaign and shadow constitution secretary Drew Smith for No - marked the third of four such events hosted by the EIS teaching union.

At the Aberdeen gathering last week, teachers were most concerned with identifying which constitutional path would reduce the poverty-fuelled attainment gap. Initial exchanges in Glasgow, however, were dominated by audience anger about the No campaign's late drive for extra powers, despite thousands of people already having voted.

Mr Russell's opening address focused on poverty. It was only with full powers over welfare and taxation, he said, that Scotland could prevent the "tidal wave" of an additional 100,000 children who would be pushed into poverty by 2020 as a result of austerity measures, according to figures from the Child Poverty Action Group.

He also suggested that free higher education would feature in a Scottish constitution and insisted that, like the National Health Service, only full power over Scotland's budgets would protect education, despite it already being devolved.

"There will be difficulties [with independence], there will be things that we need to overcome, but the basic truth is that if you take responsibility, you get opportunity," he said.

However, Mr Smith hit his stride when arguing that the Scottish government was being disingenuous in promising that it could provide Scandinavian-style services but also cut corporation tax. "The rules of arithmetic do not apply," he said.

Mr Smith was quizzed on free higher education but would not be drawn into a firm commitment. He also skirted the suggestion that fresh moves to offer increased powers to the Scottish Parliament after voting had started were undemocratic.

The Scottish Labour MSP went on to accuse the Yes campaign of creating divisions in the UK when, he said, England, Wales and Northern Ireland shared many values. "I believe in solidarity - I don't believe in walking away from others," he said.

As with previous debates, the event attracted strong interest and all 200 tickets were taken. One No voter upbraided Mr Russell for the "fiasco of Curriculum for Excellence" and another argued that punitive cuts to further education proved that higher education was a greater priority for the Scottish government. A primary teacher was deeply concerned about additional support needs budgets and told Mr Russell that she had "never seen morale so low" among staff.

The evening's most popular contribution came from a teacher who decried a "democratic deficit" that meant Ukip wielded considerable influence across the UK even though Nigel Farage's party attracted far less support in Scotland than in England.

There were cheers when she referenced the Trident nuclear submarines stored 20 miles from Glasgow, which Yes campaigners want to remove. "One way to release lots of money to pay for the cuts and austerity is to get rid of those weapons of mass destruction," she said.

Polls, not sanctioned by the neutral EIS, were taken before and after the event. Yes initially gained 59 per cent support, as No trailed on 16 per cent and 25 per cent were undecided. Afterwards, 69 per cent were for Yes, 11 per cent No and 20 per cent undecided.

David Braid, a science faculty head and No voter, told TESS before the debate that he was disappointed by the Yes campaign making few references to schools. "I want to find out how I am going to be a better teacher in an independent Scotland," he said.

English teacher and Yes voter Mary Pattison was unconcerned that independence might hit her pocket. "It may be quite difficult, but in the long term [independence] is going to be really advantageous to the poorest in our society," she said. "If my taxes go up but policies go in the right direction, I would pay them without a murmur."

Music teachers Kirsty Blackwood and Graeme Pollock were voting Yes largely because they saw Westminster as remote and underpinned by different values, both in education - citing the academies programme and the abolition of the General Teaching Council - and more generally. They hoped Scotland would pursue policies that would inspire change in England.

"I just think the best place to run ourselves is from as close to ourselves as possible," said Mr Pollock. "To me, London isn't in England - it's on another planet."

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