Labour and the golden goose

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Those seeking a little light electoral relief may have marvelled that the British bulldog, traditional symbol of Churchill and 19th-century white racist supremacy, has now been appropriated by New Labour. This week saw Tony Blair pushing hard for the centre ground of middle England. His education speech in Birmingham marks a notable shift from the comprehensive ethos for Labour, and sounds a warning bell for troublesome unions.

In Scotland, a Labour government would be likely to result in a rather interesting new phenomenon. A most convenient whipping boy would have fled the scene, to be replaced by uncompromising reality. No longer would union or local authority spokespersons be able to take hyperbolic refuge in that most convenient and lazy of concepts: that the source of all ills is an allegedly remote and uncaring administration. The current financial facts of life and their effects on Scottish education are worth considering.

Currently 44 per cent more is spent on every Scottish man, woman and child than elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish block is boosted, of course, by the Barnett formula, successfully defended in Cabinet by successive Conservative Secretaries of State.

Lamentably, much of the extra spend goes on servicing Scotland's appalling levels of loan debt, more than three times higher per capita than south of the border. A sad legacy indeed to Scotland's schoolchildren from certain defunct regional councils. Another tranche is currently wasted by councils on maintaining thousands of empty places in undersubscribed schools.

Of the Scottish block, more than a third goes to local authorities. Those who continue to defend a greater share for Scottish education should therefore answer two simple questions.

First, are they arguing for a larger share of the total for Scotland's councils? If so, from where in the Scottish Office budget do they anticipate it coming? Health care? Police? Or somewhere else?

Second, they may wish to promote the proposition that Scots should have even more per head spent on them in relation to English neighbours. It's surely unlikely that a Calton Hill assembly could convince Westminster of this.

To be fair, Labour's leaders have recognised the Government's realities. George Robertson has agreed there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Mr Blair, looking at the uncosted pledges of smaller parties, says that unrealistic promises are both dishonest and short-termist. The real dangers now to Scottish education under the proposed arrangements for an assembly relate to the implicit but little discussed threat to the continuation of the Barnett formula.

The left-leaning Professor Arthur Midwinter has produced a damning study of Labour's tax-raising plans (Uncharted Waters: Problems of Financing Labour's Scottish parliament). The argument is that under an assembly Barnett would come under intense scrutiny at Westminster, where Scotland's voice and influence would be vastly reduced.

Probably fewer Scottish MPs - and these in the circumstances won't vote for long on English domestic legislation. Probably no Secretary of State in Cabinet to argue the Scottish corner: the job would become redundant.

Such fears for the future of Barnett are echoed by the left-wing Constitution Unit's report Scotland's Parliament: Fundamentals. These are serious concerns for Scottish education, and no reassurance is (or indeed can be) offered by Labour. The educational world should consider how Barnett may be safeguarded; and ask what guarantee exists that an assembly would not destabilise Scotland's most favourable funding. The Barnett formula currently brings an extra Pounds 3.8 billion to Scotland, providing solid investment in educational quality and opportunity.

I fear that destabilising this golden goose would, for Scottish education, prove truly to be an operation without anaesthetic.

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