No-one has ever accused Nicola Sturgeon of winging it. Unlike some politicians, she enjoys doing her homework. If you want to talk about the detail of policy, about the technical parameters within which this or that is measured, about the baseline assumptions that dictate funding decisions or the procedural manner in which policy is formulated, then she’s your lady.
That much was evident in her election interview with Andrew Neil this evening. I imagine long sections of it were baffling to viewers outwith Scotland as the first minister and Mr Neil traded statistics on the economy, health and, especially, education. Sturgeon has asked to be judged on her record and Neil was happy to accept her invitation.
But it must be admitted that arguments over the methodology used in annual surveys of literacy and numeracy and suggestions that these surveys are inferior to a planned new series of national standardised assessment does not necessarily make for riveting television. We know Sturgeon can absorb a brief and we also know, if we are interested in being honest with ourselves, that both sides in this dispute are happy to cherry-pick data to support their central contention that Scottish education is either in crisis or that it’s actually performing better than the media would have you believe.
The truth is that the SNP had been in power for more than seven years before it noticed there were some problems in Scottish schools requiring attention. Even so, on these occasions Sturgeon always has a handy defence: record levels of exam passes, record numbers of pupils leaving school and going on to so-called ‘positive destinations’ (defined, in essence, as anything except prison or the dole queue) and so on.
And yet it is difficult to square the suggestion all is more or less well with the Scottish government’s insistence that change is needed, change is inevitable, and more change is coming. The change – whether it works or not – is predicated on failure. Because otherwise it wouldn’t be necessary. So, in that sense, Sturgeon concedes that her critics have a point. As Neil observed, since 2006 Scotland’s ranking in the international Pisa tests has dropped from 11th to 23rd in reading, from 11th to 24th in maths and 10th to 19th in science. That’s a relative decline that’s been coupled with no improvement in absolute performance.
If the SNP had only come to power in 2014, say, this would not matter. All governments are granted a period of grace before their reforms or policy revisions can be given time to be implemented. But the nationalists have been in power for a decade and insisting that this time they really mean to change things for the better becomes, in those circumstances, an increasingly shoogly peg upon which to hang your policy agenda.
Granted, Scottish education policy has generally been formulated on a cross-party basis. Everyone supported the introduction of a new curriculum a decade ago. So in that sense, responsibility is shared by all parties. Even so, as Keir Bloomer, one of the architects of that curriculum and generally acknowledged to be one of Scotland’s leading educationalists, put it a few months ago: ‘Scottish education has significant strengths, but it is time to recognise that it also has profound weaknesses. These do not lie in the classroom: they lie in the way that the system is run. Change processes are shambolic; governance is outdated and ineffective; over-riding priorities are clear and appropriate, but guidance for teachers is not.’
When Sturgeon is interviewed, however, she always has one joker that may be played in almost any emergency. Namely that, however disappointing matters may be in Scotland they are not arranged nearly so badly as they are in England. Whether it’s university access, nurses pay, productivity growth, A&E waiting times or just about anything else, things are better in Scotland than they are in alien, hard-Tory, hard-right, England. Why, here we are trailblazers for progressive politics and our politics are so attractive Jeremy Corbyn seeks to make England more like Scotland.
Well, given that identifiable public spending is about ten percent higher per capita in Scotland than it is in England, you might think that public services should be better north of the border. (There are, to be sure, good reasons why spending is higher but the increased cost of providing schools and healthcare in the sparsely populated highlands hardly explains or even justifies the entire discrepancy between spending north and south of the border.)
More to the point, it is an article of nationalist faith that things in England are dreadful. If we accept that is the case, it is no great glory to arrange services in such a way that they perform modestly better than they manage to do in England’s grim neoliberal dystopia. Measuring Scottish performance against that produced in England is a fine example of what George W Bush, in another context, once called ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’.
The first minister asks us to believe that education is her ‘top priority’ but only last November she wrote that the case for independence ‘transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of political fads and trends’. That being so, voters have reason to doubt her claim that education is the ‘top priority’.
And that is fine, not least since as far as Sturgeon is concerned independence is also the means to an end, not just an end itself. For her, it would allow the creation of a better, fairer, Scotland. Even so, it’s also reasonable to observe that since independence ‘transcends’ any question of ‘national wealth’ she’d still be in favour of it even if it could be proved beyond all reasonable doubt that an independent Scotland would be poorer than it is now.
That is, again, a respectable position even if it is also a minority one. But it helps to explain why opposition parties report that the national question remains the subject most frequently cited by voters on the fabled doorsteps of Scotland and why, also, the SNP don’t need to put independence at the front of their campaign because their belief in independence is already priced-in by the electorate.
Nonetheless, as Sturgeon admitted this evening every vote for the SNP is a vote that will strengthen her mandate for a second referendum to be held, as she now admits, after the Brexit negotiations are concluded but not before them. If the SNP win the Scottish portion of the election – spoiler, they will – that makes Theresa May’s opposition to a second referendum a live issue once again.
‘I think that position is unsustainable’, Sturgeon said, confirming, if you needed any doubt, that all the questions about health and education and the economy are less pressing, less vital, less essential than the biggest question of all which remains, as it has done since 2011, the national, constitutional question.