The Liberal Democrats have a spring in their step. After years of taking a kicking and coming to terms with the near complete wipeout of 2015, they have stormed back into the reckoning winning second place in the European elections. They feel that with Labour and the Tories in trouble, the wind is blowing in their favour, and that they can offer a pan-British voice for Remain.
There is the hope of a fresh start with a leadership contest. This pitches Scottish MP Jo Swinson against Sir Ed Davey. Davey was a Cabinet minister in the coalition with responsibility for energy, while Swinson was junior equalities minister outside the Cabinet. Swinson also managed to secure some successes which outlived the Lib Dem period in office on maternity and paternity rights.
The record and actions of the coalition hang heavily over the Lib Dems. Voters remember their broken promises, in particular the volte face on student tuition fees which saw the party's MPs – Swinson and Davey included – support the introduction of £9,000 fees. Ultimately, it was the Tories who gained most from the Lib Dem's period in office, with David Cameron using them as a human shield. The Lib Dems hope that the European surge is a sign of the changing political weather and that voters may be beginning to rehabilitate them and even forgive them. The chances of this seem slim. The prospects look too early, given that we are only four years from the party being in office, and that we are still living with the consequences of austerity, public spending cuts and flat-lining living standards.
Last week, Jo Swinson appeared on BBC One's 'Question Time', where she took the opportunity to declare that she would be running for the Lib Dem leadership. She was in formidable and feisty mood, holding forth on a range of subjects with confidence and articulateness. She challenged the Brexit party's 'No Deal Brexit', she chided the mess the Tories had made of negotiations, and she laid into the collusion of the Labour leadership with this sad state of affairs.
All fine and well so far. Swinson was on solid ground on much of this and able to make the Lib Dem case with more confidence than anyone from the party could have hoped a few months ago. When talking about education, she cited figures which purported to show how divided Scotland is, claiming that 80% of young people in her constituency, East Dunbartonshire, went on to university, whereas in nearby Govan the figure was a mere 4%. The message was stark and powerful: here was an illustration of how far the SNP had fallen from their message of social justice and belief in progressive Scotland.
Unsurprisingly, this brought forth a welter of claim and counter-claim. Nancy Belford, headteacher of Govan High School, and Maureen McKenna, Glasgow's director of education, entered the fray, citing figures which showed that 23.68% of pupils at the school went on to higher education and 13.16% went on to university, while 94% overall went on to 'positive destinations' (which sounds like the sort of euphemism invented by Tory politicians). Govan High School's own website for 2018 summer leavers shows that 22% went on to university level, 42% to further education, 25% employment, and the rest training.
Numerous SNP supporters, including ministers, entered the debate, restating the above figures. One dynamic of social justice debates in Scotland seems to be, no matter what they are about or who is having them, that they are always about poor people and never about privileged and rich people. Social justice is a chimera in such terms: always contested and always unattainable.
Many revelations flowed from this episode. One was that Jo Swinson came off as lacking a sure touch and even a sense of empathy and subtlety. She offered no follow through for her assertions and no apology for any inaccuracy in her facts. The astute observer Dani Garavelli commented that 'Swinson's stereotyping hinted at something more sinister – a detachment from the lives of the working-class people she wants her party to "help"'. It doesn't help, either, that the Lib Dems are an alien species in places such as Govan, and upon reflection, it is no surprise that the Govans of this world are foreign territory to the Lib Dems.
Another issue was that trading figures about the state of education in Govan and East Dunbartonshire showed how some of the more partisan SNP supporters lack, to put it mildly, any sense of a light touch. The SNP have been in office for a total of 12 years. That brings with it a record to explain and defend, and shortcomings. Yet, to the most ardent nationalist, every single deficiency in their party's record has to be disproven and sometimes the people making the claims as well. This doesn't make for good policy or good politics for the SNP or anyone else.
The bigger issue sitting in the midst of this stooshie is what passes for social justice in Scotland. We do need to ask, given 20 years of the Scottish Parliament and devolution, what if any progress we have made? What if any redistribution has been created to benefit those most disadvantaged? And in what ways have we challenged those who have power, wealth and status?
The official discourse of SNP supporters is that we are on a journey to a fairer, better Scotland: that we are informed by an enlightened, benign, compassionate mindset, mitigating the worst of Westminster austerity and the Tory assault on welfare.
If we look at the evidence it is true that the actions of the Scottish Government have, across a range of policies, protected people from the worst and most offensive Tory policies: the bedroom tax and rape clause being two examples. Yet, the bigger picture over the last 20 years – under first Labour and the Lib Dems, and then the SNP – measuring income inequality by the Gini co-efficient, shows that Scotland is less unequal than England over the period, but that no clear progress has been made north of the border. It is also true that most of the difference between the two nations can be accounted for by the presence of London, and if you measure England without London, the two nations are broadly comparable in inequality over the past two decades.
'Educational inequality is a social problem,' says the writer and lecturer James McEnaney, 'and until we accept that (and I mean really
accept it) we've no chance of even beginning to address the problem'. He goes on to conclude: 'I think the reason it is so hard to make progress is because we're not good at being honest with ourselves'. Large parts of this debate have confirmed this – swapping rival Govan figures with not a thought for the young people in question.
There is a wider institutional problem which needs addressing in Scotland, and which neither Labour or the SNP have had the courage to act upon. A couple of years ago, I got internal figures from Glasgow School of Art which showed that in one year's intake, a total of seven working-class students got places. The figures were so bad that sometimes years passed with not one
student going to the legendary institution from many of Glasgow's council estates. This cumulatively would send out to such pupils, their parents and schools, that Glasgow School of Art wasn't for them and was, in effect, a middle-class exclusion zone.
Suffice to say, the high heidyins who administer higher education did not like having this social apartheid pointed out. Rather than deal with the source of the issue: the practices of GSA and the pressures on educational bodies which forces them down this route, they chose the route of quibbling about how the figures were counted and quantified. In effect, the national body, Universities Scotland, said that the definition of 'working class' wasn't an accurate one, and anyway, they were changing the measurements.
Now, I am not trying to present a completely black and white picture here. There are lots of well-intentioned initiatives up and down our land aimed at widening opportunity and social justice. There is also a desire at the heart of parts of government to open up educational access and to support those who live in disadvantaged areas such as Govan. Many of the deeper trends measured by the Gini co-efficient are beyond the powers of the Scottish Government, and many would remain so under independence.
Yet, if we are to change the life chances of young people living in Govan, aid them in having genuine 'positive destinations', and end the social apartheid which has defined too many of the public institutions of Scotland, we need to start by having a reality check. Defending the status quo as somehow adequate and even progressive just won't do. And giving the SNP a blank cheque after 12 years in office is an abdication of responsibility. All this does is allow the elites and insider classes who ran Scotland before devolution to continue to run things 20 years into the parliament's existence, unchallenged.
This is a strange state of affairs. The people who see themselves as the most radical and left-wing in Scotland often end up, unwittingly, defending the cossetted actions of the self-preservation society which administered Scotland when democracy was something which happened every five years, sending a bunch of chaps to Westminster. They can't believe their luck, as a class, that with democracy now home-grown and a full-time parliament and politicians, the general dispensation is to pretend that we are advancing towards a more socially just Scotland. We are not, and the first step in changing things is recognising this.
Jo Swinson certainly was cavalier with her facts, but if she has aided us in waking up and having a proper debate, which furthers real change and calls time on some of the above, it may still prove to have been a worthwhile intervention.