Building Scotland back better

The next Scottish Parliament election on 6 May 2021 will be a major test for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.  With some recent polls suggesting increased support for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom the stakes could not be higher.

We opposed Brexit and oppose Scotland leaving the United Kingdom.  Another independence referendum would be a massive distraction from sorting out the problems Scotland faces.

We must continue to make the passionate, emotional and economical case for a reformed United Kingdom.  People want to vote for success, for hope of a better future and for people who aspire to make a difference.  We need to show how using the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament will enable Scotland to be built back better.

The Scottish Party is about to consult members about the shape of our 2021 manifesto. It is worth setting out a handful of ideas that could, if the Scottish Government devoted its whole attention to them, make Scotland a fairer, greener and more prosperous place to live and do so by giving more power to local communities.

In 2017 the First Minister declared that education was her “top priority”, but Scottish schools have declined in international rankings and the Scottish Government has failed to meet its own targets for the provision of nursery places. The damage done to our education system will reduce the opportunities available to our children and hold our country back.

The Liberal Democrats long campaigned for a penny on Income Tax for education.  We should actually make Education the top priority for government once again.   Education is our way to a high-wage, high-skill economy where inequality becomes largely a thing of the past. It is a scandal that most of Scotland’s secondary schools only allow children to take six subjects at Nat5 level (the equivalent of GSCE in England).  That must change.  

We could give more power to schools and colleges, local school clusters and councils to come up with new ideas that meet local needs and help raise attainment.  In an environment where the UK Government is talking of increased public spending, we could use Barnet consequentials to increase school budgets, recruit more teachers and support staff and make the Pupil Equity Fund (the Scottish equivalent of the Pupil Premium) permanent and more effective. Scotland used to legitimately claim to have one of the best education systems in the world. We need to recover that reputation.

The pandemic has shown how our society pushes stress and risk onto the shoulders of those who find it harder to bear.  The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for reform of mental health provision, so it is treated with the same urgency as physical health.  We should make that change.  Holyrood must also make a massive investment in new affordable and social housing to end homelessness and ensure that everyone lives in the home they need.  We should simplify and speed up the programme to insulate every home in Scotland, cut carbon emissions and end fuel poverty.

It is worth remembering that different parts of Scotland have very different needs. Simplistic top-down solutions don’t work.  The SNP have centralised power into their own hands.  We could give real power to councils to design local services for the needs of their communities and make it easier for local people to hold their councils to account.   In a country with a historically low rate for creation of new businesses we should recreate genuinely local enterprise companies and investment funds so that entrepreneurs are supported properly in every part of Scotland.   At the same time, we could use the power of the public procurement system to give advantages to suppliers that treat their staff fairly, pay their suppliers promptly and work towards meeting the Paris Climate change goals.

Investment in infrastructure is vital to help us recover from the pandemic and meet climate change targets, but investment levels remain inadequate across the UK. The SNP has not yet re-opened a single new railway line that was not at the planning stage when they came to office in 2007. The next Scottish Government needs to make major investment in rail electrification and hydrogen-powered trains, extend the rail network and design the next Scotrail franchise to make it more attractive to passengers and a better deal for the public purse.  In Edinburgh and Lothian, the publicly owned bus service has increased passenger numbers whilst numbers fall across the rest of the country.  Provision of bus services is too important to be left to the private sector.  Public transport investment and active travel should have priority over new and wider roads. All those changes could be made with the existing powers of the Parliament.

Credit where credit is due.  The Scottish Government did succeed in protecting Scotland’s NHS during the first months of the pandemic, but at a real cost in the lives of the vulnerable residents of care homes.  It is to this SNP Governments’ shame that 46% of all Covid-19 deaths occurred in a care home. It is easy to get lost in statistics and forget the real grief and loss in every case.  The connections between the NHS and social care must be improved.  We need to give social care staff the same levels of respect, training and remuneration as their NHS colleagues.  That is all within our grasp while using the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament.

These are only some of the things that could be at the heart of the party’s manifesto for 2021. Imagine how much better things would be if the Scottish Government had made ideas like these their actual priority rather than the pursuit of independence supported by the rallying cry of “well, at least it’s not as bad as England’.  

Our next Parliament must aspire to more. Its potential to do so makes the failures of the SNP even more devastating.  We can make the difference. With absolute control over huge areas of government and legislative competence and the ability to set income tax rates for Scottish Taxpayers, the Scottish Government could make a real difference and deliver a future a fairer, greener and more prosperous Scotland in the United Kingdom.

 

* Fred Mackintosh QC is the Scottish Liberal Democrat Prospective Scottish Parliamentary Candidate for Edinburgh Southern.  He was a member of the Campbell Commission on Home and Community Rule.  His campaign webpage is at www.fredmackintosh.scot 

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15 Comments

  • The Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in its present form is not sustainable following the outbreak of English nationalism revealed by the June 2016 EU Referendum.

    I see the reunification of Ireland as both inevitable and highly desirable. The only uncertain question is how soon it will come.

    The rest of the UK needs a proper federal constitution. Given the size of England, it is too large to be one component of that federation, and England does not have internally consistent interests. Greater London or Greater Manchester (the two places I know best) are very different from, say, rural Lincolnshire. Accordingly England also needs to be divided into sensible self-governing regions within a federal UK (minus NI).

    Absent that, I see Scottish independence as almost as inevitable as Irish reunification. The idea that an independent Scotland would not be economically sustainable is nonsense when one looks at the size of the Scottish population compared with many other European countries.

  • Stuart Crawford 12th Jul '20 - 11:42am

    Agree with all of this except the implied position on the next independence referendum. To enter the Holyrood elections on a stop indyref ticket will be electorally suicidal. It is not intellectually incoherent, however, to be agreeable to a referendum and argue for a no vote at the same time. I am also presuming that if Scotland *does* vote to become independent the party will not be shutting up shop?

  • There are a couple of issues that I, someone living in England, world like to comment on. I put it that way because we can assume that the structure of the United Kingdom will continue to be treated as something that is not the concern of those of us who live in England.
    The first is education. There is overwhelming evidence of the correlation between poor outcomes in education and family poverty. One of the causes is mentioned – housing. But In the main poor housing for a family is a result of low family income.
    Second is mental health. Again overwhelming evidence of a correlation between mental ill health and low family income.
    So the priority should be the elimination of poverty. That does not mean of course that nothing else needs changing. The skill is to do everything at once.

  • Thanks Fred. Lots to chew over there.

    @Martin, are you really suggesting that we abandon a three hundred year old union with our immediate neighbours with whom we share a currency and do most of our trade because Boris Johnson is a charlatan?

    Brexit will make us poorer. Scexit would do the exact same, but on a larger scale. Scexit would not lead to Scotland rejoining the EU, as Scotland would not meet the economic requirements to do so without at least ten years of extreme austerity. Scexit would make us substantially poorer. IMO, the main reasons Scots were more sceptical about Brexit was because Scottish politicians didn’t need to blame Brussels for stuff when they could blame Westminster instead, and the experience of the 2014 referendum made fence sitters a bit more sceptical of empty promises.

    Sturgeon is definitely a better communicator than Johnson, but the Scottish Government made many of the same mistakes as the Westminster one, such as delaying lockdown, a failure to protect care homes, inadequate PPE and testing. They tried to cover up an outbreak in Edinburgh in February because they were worried about the impact it would have on the economy.

    The Scottish Health minister blaming the care homes for the high number of deaths in care homes long before BoJo gave it a go. The Scottish Government were trying to scrap jury trials before England tried to do the same, and it was only the Scottish Government who snuck through a change to the Freedom of Information regulations along with other emergency legislation, hoping that it would make it easier for them to operate with less scrutiny, which is what happened. Any journalist with pesky questions about why care homes were being told their staff didn’t need the same level of PPE as advised in England were going to have to wait two months for a response. It’s only because the Green finally capitulated and voted against the SNP (where they are a minority government) that was eventually reversed.

    IMO, the main problem with the Westminster Government, as well as its current inhabitants, is that they have a substantial majority in Parliament, despite minority support. I know it sounds like a very LibDem thing to say, but I genuinely do think that our government would have handled the whole thing better if they had to rely on the support of other parties – as is the case in virtually every country that handled the crisis better than us.

  • Can we please treat the independence issue with the attention it deserves – minimal. The policy/ movement is vacuous, dishonest, misleading and distracting. It is a passing political fashion and most definitely not a defining element in LibDem identity. LibDems cannot escape 3rd party squeeze so there is no point in trying to insert into the binary TV discussions. They will be about the Conservatives arguing they are the only alternative to Nicola. People care about their children’s future and the care of the vulnerable. The focus is on how the state will solve underfunding and poor performance. One day the Conservatives will be out of power and independence will suddenly become yesterday’s news. So, talk about social change and educational priorities for both the 2021 election and for the GE after it.

  • Fred Mackintosh is, of course, a well respected Q.C. used to asking forensic questions. I wonder if he could give some forensic answers to three brief questions ?

    How does he reconcile accepting the superior authority of a first past the post elected Parliament, (in which Scottish constituencies are vastly outnumbered) in controlling finance and borrowing rather than the authority of a PR elected Parliament ?

    Equally, how does he reconcile accepting the superior authority of a first past the post elected Parliament on the question of Brexit when a PR elected Parliament has a different view on membership of the EU – (backed by a referendum result which voted 62% in favour of Remain ?)

    Given current polling in Scotland suggests the Scottish Lib Dems are in fourth place on 5% (behind the Greens on 8%), and that the Scottish Government currently on 55% may get an absolute majority in Holyrood next May, how confident is he of implementing his plan to ‘Build Back Scotland Better’ ?

  • Strange to read this when the main plank of the LibDem anti-independence stance was that a vote for independence was a vote to leave the EU…
    Mind you, I still have a problem with seeing the ‘democratic’ bit in wanting to reverse the EU referendum result (without even allowing a second vote) and refusing to countenance a second vote for Scots..

    Still, I’m sure someone will ‘put me right’..

  • Robert Brown 12th Jul '20 - 2:33pm

    A word on independence. It is not our policy and the idea that we should suddenly swing round to support It or facilitate it is strategically inept as well as wrong in principle.

    But we do need to show people the practical advantages of a federal solution for the UK because the present set up is not sustainable.

    Covid 19 did demonstrate the value of the larger resources of the UK backed by the Treasury but also of the greater flexibility of government at a state or local level. Federal Germany demonstrated this even more clearly.

    And in a federal UK, it would not be possible for the UK govt to override the federal states in areas allocated to them.

    Incidentally it is a myth that the strongest argument in 2014 was that a No vote would secure our place on Europe. The strongest argument was that we were better together in the UK. The Europe issue was whether an independent Scotland would get automatic re-ad mission to Europe or not – remember Alex Salmond’s non existent legal advice on the issues? The SNP have turned this round since to pretend it was the core issue. In fact I know of no one who voted No on this point.

    We support a federal UK – and vital measures to deliver a more Liberal country of opportunity. Let’s campaign on that ground not someone else’s territory.

  • @David Raw – I presume that Fred’s answer to both your points would be to campaign for and achieve a Federal solution for the UK with all parliaments, including Westminster, being elected by PR.

  • Peter Watson 12th Jul '20 - 3:00pm

    This and a parallel article leave me really confused about Lib Dem priorities.
    For four years it was obvious: everything was about remaining in the EU. It made the party look like a one-trick pony but at least it was a clear position.
    Then, last December, opposition to Corbyn seemed to trump remaining in the EU, Labour’s second referendum looking like the best chance to do so.
    And now opposition to Scottish independence seems more important than Scotland remaining in or re-entering the EU.
    It all makes me wonder what was the point of the last few years for the party.

  • Will McLean 12th Jul '20 - 3:40pm

    Great post and all the best with the campaign Fred! However a sticking point for me, and others it would seem, is the issue of a second referendum.

    @Martin I disagree with your claim this is a passing political fashion. You could argue it’s an issue that’s been snowballing ever since the Scottish Parliament began or even earlier. We’ll only really know either way with hindsight. The SNP first won in 2007 remember, when a Labour Government was in office. The issue is bigger than the current Conservative government.

    Another referendum on the issue with a second question on a federal UK/devo max would be my preference. We need to differentiate ourselves as the party of reasonable compromise. If we don’t, I fear at the next election our other policies will be lost like shouting into the wind.

  • Peter Nicholson 12th Jul '20 - 11:12pm

    I would rather see us taking the line that we can make the Scottish Government and Parliament with its present powers work better than under the SNP, than that we set about preaching federalism, and I am pleased to see Fred take that line. Federalism isn’t going to happen over the lifetime of the next Holyrood Parliament, which is what this election is about, and just isn’t going to seem relevant to most voters. And the Parliament already has most if not all of the powers it would have under a federal system.

    Secondly, while a second independence referendum may not be our preferred position as a party – though that is far from a unanimous view – I believe we will have to face the question, what if the SNP wins a majority on a platform of seeking to hold one? And I also believe that as democrats we would at that stage have to accept that it should take place, whatever we have campaigned for. Given the political situation at Westminster, it is well arguable that it could be the most likely way to achieve a liberal democratic society in Scotland; it certainly would not be a lost cause if independence came about.

  • What does Build back better mean? The only way to rebuild/build is via a vibrant economy but this contribution only refers to public sector spend. Let’s have some “meat on the bones” or we won’t be credible.

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