Has Holyrood snatched the votes?

18th May 2001 at 01:00
In the first of two articles before he retires as editor of The TES Scotland, Willis Pickard looks at two landmark elections and their lessons for June 7

or any journalist with an interest in public affairs, general elections bring a quickening of the pulse. Unfortunately, the first one during my period as editor of The TES Scotland, in 1979, the paper was unable to cover because we were off the streets in an 11-month industrial dispute. My final one I had expected to be over, on May 3, three weeks before my departure.

With the month's delay, however, I leave in mid-campaign, with only the partial consolation that the principal interest of the paper, Scottish education, is not a burning issue because of devolution.

The election of 1979 was a turning point though no journalist lucky enough to have a newspaper to write in predicted the start of an 18-year Conservative reign. Because the Times newspaper group, then owned by Lord Thomson, was mired in a printers' dispute, we could not chronicle the departure as Secretary of State of Bruce Millan and his amiable Education Minister, Frank McElhone (the man who took Scottish Opera to the shopfloor at Linwood car plant), nor the arrival of George Younger as Secretary of State, flanked by Alex Fletcher.

On the early days of "milk-snatcher" Thatcher as Prime Minister we had to remain silent, though we were back in business by the time of her first education initiative, to replace Labour's rigid school catchment areas with parental choice. Her later industrial relations legislation, along with the bitterly contested move to Wapping by Rupert Murdoch, the new owner of Times newspapers, made no longer possible the crippling disputes of the seventies.

In 1979, we journalists kicked our heels, or more accurately the bar rail at the then Beau Brummell in Hanover Street. The office secretary, now a professor (we practise what we preach in lifelong learning), brought in a tortoise, a comment perhaps on the slowness of negotiations. It ate the office geranium.

Back at last on the streets, the paper was no wiser than others in recognising the phenomenon of Thatcherism. Until the Falklands conflict, it looked as if the pattern of shortish periods of Tory and Labour rule would continue. Only with the arrival in junior office of the young Michael Forsyth after the lady's third victory in 1987 did Scottish education realise that the aspirations had become evolutionary.

Paradoxically at the same moment the untenability of the constitution also became clear. Michael Forsyth drove through reforms such as the creation of self-governing schools in the teeth of almost universal opposition in Scotland. His supposed boss, Malcolm Rifkind, barely disguised his alarm and suspicion.

Another decade and two elections passed before devolution was on the agenda but the affront to education opinion of the Thatcherite "reforms" helped to create the climate for change, not least among Labour activists who had been sceptical at the previous referendum and uninterested during the eighties.

At The TESS, disappointed by and unable to comment on the failed referendum, which happened in the 11 blank months, we maintained a belief in the need for a Scottish legislature where education would be a prime function. By 1997, an election whose outcome we hailed, the time was at last right. And so we arrive at a new poll which at first appears irrelevant.

But my successor as editor, Neil Munro, does not have to suffer an imposed silence about the outcome on June 7 akin to that forced on me 21 years ago. The heart of the debate between the UK parties is about the funding and future direction of the public services. Devolution gave the Holyrood Parliament virtually no tax-varying powers, and the 3p leeway on the income tax the first Executive vowed to ignore.

So on the result on June 7 depends the financing of Scottish education as much as that south of the border. If the Conservatives unexpectedly win, the test will be to spend more while cutting taxes (their pledge).

Within the UK, education systems are not likely to diverge too much if Westminster leaders get their way. Any reassertion of traditional teaching methods in England is almost bound to be replicated here. We also see the harmonising tendency in the politics of envy: English teachers want the Scottish 35-hour week, English students want tuition fees abolished. With these demands pressing on the Treasury, how far will further costly initiatives be allowed to go here?

Only two years into the new Parliament, we are still at the beginning of the devolution story. The Scottish elections in 2003 will be about the limitations of self-government as well as the record of the Executive. And there will be plenty of education for The TESS to write about.

* Next week: So is education any better?

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