I welcome Kate Forbes as Holyrood’s Finance Minister on grounds that she just might be capable of original thinking which delivers something for Scotland.
The main characteristics of her colleagues are political longevity and obscurity which would normally seem contradictory. In this set-up, however, there is only one song-sheet. A Government of the talents it is not.
Ms Forbes is qualified to challenge mediocrity and should not under-estimate the strength of her position. Her fresh face dug her boss out of a large hole and there is the immediate advantage that she cannot fail to be an improvement on her predecessor. (Is he still an MSP, by the way?).
Nonetheless, it is by actions she will be judged rather than an undisputed ability to read out a speech written for somebody else. More important, its content included another attack on council funding and hence the services on which the less well-off disproportionately rely.
Ms Forbes could demonstrate early independence of mind by reversing that cruel strategy of multiplying and then passing the austerity buck to councils. Her own authority, Highland, faces a further £60 million of cuts over three years and now sees its capital allocation slashed by one-third.
Nothing there for Ms Forbes to be proud of and she is in pole position to do something about it. In the same helpful vein, I offer a few suggestions, which her background suggests might have some appeal.
The first involves basic honesty. Ms Forbes knows as well as I do that the GERs statistics represent an accurate picture of Scotland’s financial position. The SNP’s Growth Commission accepted them yet we have Scottish Government Ministers who trumpet denial.
Labour’s Neil Bibby has written to Ms Forbes asking her to disown comments from Michael Russell, pointing out that the Ministerial Code decrees “collective responsibility” even while tweeting. It also advises Ministers to avoid matters for which they have no responsibility.
Ms Forbes, right, should tell him to do just that. There need be no contradiction between pursuing independence and honesty about existing realities. And there is a duty to defend the integrity of scrupulous civil servants even if that means telling colleagues to behave themselves.
My second recommendation is to order a comprehensive review of education spending and the outcomes produced – from pre-school to universities. The SNP asked to be judged on education and the current verdict is guilty on all counts, largely due to perverse spending priorities.
The whole edifice is built around the monument to Alex Salmond pledging “free” university tuition. There is no such thing as any debt-bearing Scottish student will confirm but the costs are ruinously expensive and distort the whole education budget. Yet what are the outcomes?
As a product of Cambridge and Edinburgh, Ms Forbes must recognize the irony of fewer Scots gaining entry to Scotland’s ancient universities than a decade ago; of thousands of well-qualified Scots being refused university entry to make way for fee-payers from England, of most Scottish universities living, unsustainably, from their reserves. It is madness.
At the other end, school budgets and staff are cut. Early Intervention – the key to so much else – hardly exists and eight per cent fewer pupils passed Higher English than a year previously. Further education, crucial to working-class communities, has been ransacked to pay for universities.
Until Salmond’s sacred cow is slaughtered, Scottish education will continue to decline, driven by perverse, counter-productive priorities. These should be reviewed from top to bottom.
My final piece of advice is more localised. Not only does Ms Forbes represent a Highland seat but studied Migration History. That hinterland must make her aware that without a strategy, Scotland’s most peripheral places will continue to decline into picturesque reservations for holiday homes and AirB&B.
Her studies must have taught her that promoting growth points (eg. Inverness) is inevitably at the expense of the real periphery (and its language) unless there is some effective counter-strategy. Nobody in the Scottish Government has displayed the slightest understanding of, or interest in, that reality.
Ms Forbes can change that. I wish her well.
FUTILE DIVISIONS FROM WHICH SCOTLAND MAY NEVER RECOVER
There are divisions within all societies – between haves and have-nots, privileged and underdogs, the socially liberal and conservative.
These are the stuff of democratic politics. The pendulum swings and an equilibrium is found. Too far to the right, too far to the left? Next time there will be a chance to correct it.Until recently, these were healthy, necessary divisions within Scotland, conducted with passion and respect, the pendulum gradually moving towards a more liberal, egalitarian society.
The differences which now divide Scotland are of a different and depressing nature – the price paid for wasted years of arguing about the constitution to the subordination of all else.
According to a YouGov survey for Our Scotland Future, 57 per cent think the country is split because of constitutional issues, while 47 per cent believe Scotland will “forever remain divided”.
Those who have made careers out of the perpetual appeal to grievance should review their handiwork. Is permanent division really their ambition – or even a price worth paying?
We have plumbed the depths when there cannot be a summit about drug-related deaths, in which we lead Europe, without it becoming the excuse for a stand-off.
The eyes of the world will be on Glasgow for COP26 but the priority is to nick in and book the Science Centre before the organisers can get their hands on it. How pathetic.
Now immigration is the battleground of high principle with hyperbole the weapon of choice when Scotland’s interests would be far better served by evidence-based negotiation.
This sad poll confirms that Scotland is being steadily degraded and divided by its “new politics”. It is long past time for the pendulum to respond accordingly.
THE FIRST LOCAL COUNCILLOR WITH DOWN’S SYNDROME
Those of us with a family interest in Down’s Syndrome tend to notice positive stories about people with the condition.
The past few days have provided a good crop. There’s the girl in Boston who loves baking and, when nobody would give her a job, opened her own little bakery with help from her mother and sister.
The Boston Golden Goose Market placed a regular order. Publicity led to more business and they are now employing people with and without disabilities.
Then there’s Arras in northern France where a young woman is about to become the country’s first local councillor with Down’s Syndrome. The mayor said: “She will be a councillor like no other but she will be a councillor in her own right”.
Or how about the enterprising parents of little Odhran McLafferty in Easter Ross who have signed him up with a model agency. Odhran will also feature in a campaign called Nothing Down aiming to change perceptions of Down’s Syndrome.
These stories point to an important truth. The term Down’s Syndrome covers a wide abilities range and as many personalities as there are individuals. Just like the rest of us.
Our own son, now aged 28, is not a baker, a prospective councillor or a model. He’s just a nice, gentle guy who enhances the lives of those he comes in contact with and costs the state very little.
So why is society so determined to get rid of all these people; to eliminate them en bloc? Why in some supposedly advanced, liberal European countries are they now on the point of succeeding?
These questions are brought into focus by the campaign supported by the actress Sally Little, herself a Down’s parent, to amend the 1967 Abortion Act in order to equalise the treatment of all unborn children with non-fatal disabilities.
By far the biggest category of terminations beyond 24 weeks involve cases in which testing has taken place for Down’s Syndrome. That is the product of a relentless campaign to persuade parents that the birth of a Down’s child is a disaster which should, at all costs, be avoided.
For as long as our son has been alive, we have squirmed to read glowing reports of more “accurate” tests which identify Down’s pregnancies for one purpose only. Nobody can question the campaign’s success – in the UK, more than 90 per cent of Down’s births are pre-empted (along, inadvertently, with many non-Down’s births).
Another Down’s parent, happy with his lot, is the journalist Dominic Lawson. He made a valid point this week about justified outrage over a brief appearance in Downing Street of a bonkers Special Adviser with a record of eugenicist ravings.
Dominic wrote: “Hidden in plain sight is the most astounding hypocrisy. Eugenics is practiced in this country, funded by the taxpayer …. I am referring to the law governing the termination of pregnancy and the fact it actively discriminates against those unborn children who are likely to have subnormal IQs or physical disabilities”.
If there is enough truth in that observation to give pause for thought in the UK, then consider what is happening in Scandinavia. Denmark and Iceland have official policies of eliminating Down’s kids. At the last count, they are 98 and 100 per cent successful, respectively.
But why stop at Down’s Syndrome? Are there not other troublesome conditions which might cost the state money and cause upset to perfect families? Once this form of eugenics is accepted and packaged as an undisputed advance for medical science, it is difficult to draw a line.
There is of course an alternative. It is to offer balanced information rather than eugenic prejudice to prospective parents. It is to create a climate of support and quality provision to help families adjust. It is to welcome diversity as an asset rather than a curse.
And if you disagree with any of that, just remember the baker, the councillor, the child model…. Lumping a category of people together in order to get rid of them all is not a healthy trait in any society.