When the independence debate finally started to rumble last year, most people thought it would be the big issues which would dominate as we approached polling day – defence, foreign affairs, welfare, the future of the monarchy and so on.
But here we are, just eight months out from the 18 September referendum and there are two very different issues dominating the agenda – childcare and student tuition fees. On both of them, moreover, Alex Salmond has managed to get himself impaled on problems of his own making.
First, childcare: when he launched the White Paper on Independence back in November, the First Minister promised a ‘revolution’ in childcare if Scotland became independent. He pledged that Scottish two-year-olds would get 600 hours of childcare in the first year of independence, increasing to 1,140 hours for all youngsters from one to school age by the end of the second parliament.
But it did not take long for his opponents to realise that Salmond has complete control over childcare for Scotland at the moment. He could introduce those very changes now, under devolution, rather than holding them out as a carrot for Scots to vote Yes in September. Salmond’s argument then got somewhat convoluted. He said the changes would cost hundreds of millions of pounds to introduce and it was not worth the Scottish Government spending that money now when the benefits of the changes – in terms of a more productive economy and a greater tax take – would be enjoyed by the Westminster Government.
Salmond then went further and yesterday published the Scottish Government’s own analysis of the policy, claiming it would boost the Scottish economy by £2.2 billion if such ‘Swedish-style’ childcare was introduced. Again, he reiterated his argument that the Scottish Government had to enjoy the benefits of the change and would not be able to do so under devolution.
So here we have an SNP First Minister claiming that childcare is the key issue for the independence vote yet advocating a policy which does not need independence to be implemented. But it is not just the SNP’s political opponents who have questioned the SNP’s approach to childcare. A series of experts spoke out over the weekend to warn that the Scottish Government’s figures were flawed.
They said that many of those who would benefit from free childcare were already paying for it privately now and were already in jobs. Therefore, any investment by the state in taxpayer-funded childcare for them would be wasted and not produce any extra tax revenues for the state nor economic boost for the country. They also warned that the childcare plans were still based around providing cover for school hours, which did nothing to help women go back to work on a full-time basis.
All of these criticisms, from experts and political opponents, have made the First Minister look hesitant, unsure of his ground and lacking in vision – not quite the impression he wants to make this close to polling day.
However, the First Minister has also got himself into a mess over tuition fees.
As is well-known, Scottish students don’t have to pay fees at Scottish institutions and neither do students from the rest of the EU. Students from the rest of the UK are the exception and they have to pay fees at Scottish universities. The Nationalists are very aware that, after independence, when the UK becomes a foreign country with the same status to Scotland as, say, France, there could be a flood of UK students into Scotland seeking free tuition fees. As a result, Salmond has insisted that the current – apparently discriminatory – system would continue after independence.
A group of unionist academics calling themselves Academics Together went public at the weekend attacking the policy and demanding that Salmond publish any legal advice he has supporting his policy. The First Minister, unsurprisingly, refused to do so, hiding behind his usual argument that governments never reveal the existence of, or the content, of legal advice.
The result is that the First Minister is being gently roasted over two policies which he thought would be vote winners – free university education for Scots and much more childcare for toddlers. Both policies were designed to show that Salmond’s administration was compassionate, family-friendly and forward looking.
But all they have done is show that there are very real problems with the little issues involved in independence, More than that, though, they have left many Scots with the uncomfortable feeling that, if the little things about independence are this difficult and complicated – how bad are they going to be when we get to the really big ones.