Save us from a swinging axe

6th August 2010 at 01:00
Is the Scottish Parliament a working example of the audacity of hope or is it the triumph of a Dutch auction?

Is the Scottish Parliament a working example of the audacity of hope - where advances are achieved through a moral vision, risk taking and strong leadership - or is it the triumph of a Dutch auction, where politicians search for the cheapest voter expectations that they can buy to be elected?

Last month I raised the issue of how much the Holyrood parliament had contributed to any improvements in Scotland's education system and concluded I remain unconvinced that anything has been achieved that could not have been delivered by the old Scottish Office.

That may not be reason enough to have carried on without our new politicians' plaything - there are maybe other reasons to justify the extra expenditure and the extra tier of bureaucracy - it's just that I don't believe education policy can be shown to be one of them.

Now the Scottish Parliament has another chance to justify its existence, it can soon make a difference in education that would not be possible were the Scottish Office ministers still appointed by a British government. Over the next four months the minority SNP administration has the task of agreeing with the opposition parties where the spending cuts will fall. The following question must be asked: "Under a devolved parliament, will education fare any differently from if the decisions were dictated by policy drawn up in Westminster?"

To make any difference to the prospects for education funding, there is one debate that parents, teachers, students and administrators must enjoin if they are to protect their interests, and that is the refusal of our politicians to share the cuts across all the departments. The NHS must be brought into the spending review and take its own cuts on the chin, otherwise all other departments will have to face a disproportionately larger swing of John Swinney's axe.

The NHS represents about a third of Scottish Government spending. With such a large share being protected from anything other than efficiency savings, which are then ploughed back into the NHS, the other spending departments - such as education (the next largest), justice, transport, housing and the rest - have to cut even deeper to make the sums add up. The repercussions are obvious.

It will mean more school closures than need be, it will mean fewer jobs for teachers than necessary and it will mean more delays in building or rebuilding our school estate than were planned. It need not be like this.

Where are the educationalists speaking out and saying that if we value the future prospects of generations of pupils, we should be protecting the investment in education? Where are the ex-teachers, lecturers and heidies in the parliament, making the moral case for education so that it is at least treated equitably with the NHS - the largest employer in Scotland? Where is the talk of education, education, education now? The NHS is not 24 hours away from collapse, so why is it given sacrosanct status?

Let me answer my question. The NHS is exempted because, in a political manoeuvre to outwit Labour in a general election, the Tories had the cunning to say that they would protect NHS spending - thus eliminating the particularly effective picture of scalpel-swinging NHS butchers that Labour had concocted in the past. The result was strategically effective for David Cameron but it has meant that the NHS is now beyond debate; no politician, no party, it would seem, is prepared to say the NHS should be treated like other public services.

This is where the Scottish Parliament could act differently. It controls its own spending and it can decide its own priorities. Our MSPs can act differently.

Brian Monteith has no plans to see his doctor for a while.

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