The Holyrood election campaign of 2016 was exceptionally boring. The winner was a foregone conclusion and gimmicky photo-opportunities dominated substantial policy debate. Despite this, it produced pretty interesting results. The SNP is in a minority, but not as dramatically far short of majority as they were in 2007-11. This session, any opposition party can hold the balance of power on an issue of their choosing and if the opposition combines, we can defeat the government. The first example of this is likely to be on the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, an exceptionally poorly written piece of legislation which has eroded trust between fans and the police and is opposed by everyone from Liberty to Nil By Mouth.
The SNP government, however, has decided to be judged this term on closing the attainment gap between our most and least privileged young people. Their approach to education so far though hasn’t been entirely reassuring and it points to a wider concern about their moderate, status-quo approach. Despite guidance for teachers in August of this year, which encourages the shedding of ‘unnecessary assessments’, the SNP remains committed to a model of standardised testing whose apparent educational benefit is not backed up by the evidence here or elsewhere.
It is obvious though that the attainment gap cannot be solved by education policy alone however. It is not failures in this area which cause it in the first place – it’s the entrenched inequality of our society as a whole. Improving children’s experience at school can only go so far when they arrive hungry, from an unstable home environment or aren’t sure if they’ll have a home to return to at the end of the day.
And we know the first step towards tackling that inequality, something which will define this session of parliament – redistribution of wealth through a fair tax system. It’s not the sexiest of topics but the reality is quite plain: there is no way to tackle inequality in Scotland without reforming the tax system, one where those who can afford to pay more do and those, who cannot, do not.
The consequence of leaving the system as it is is simple: services which working class people rely on will continue to be decimated. The early morning breakfast clubs and after-school activities, the supported study classes leading up to exams and the additional support needs staff are all of far more value to the most deprived communities than to the least.
And, there is absolutely no need to cut them (or more accurately, to pass on cuts to local councils and have them do it for you), not when a modest tax rise on higher earners would make this unnecessary and when a bold approach to taxation would allow us to really bring to bear the resources needed to start tackling inequality.
Greens will be making this case every day until the argument is won and the SNP government must make a choice: will they join with ourselves, or the Labour or Liberal Democrat proposals and take a stand against austerity or will it rely on Conservative support to pass cuts budgets which hurt those who can least afford it?
Scotland does not yet have the full powers of other nations and without them we cannot truly transform society. Without the ability to implement an ambitious reindustrialisation strategy, create a coherent social security system or even guarantee every worker a decent wage, we’ll always be playing with one hand tied behind our back but that is no excuse for waving the other in surrender to austerity politics.
The powers of the Scottish Parliament, whilst incomplete, are considerable and the choice to use them to their fullest is ours. This session of parliament will be defined by those choices. Green MSPs are in the unprecedented position of holding the balance of power, if the SNP government chooses to work with us. That will require more than just the bland politics of the centre but looking at the world around us from the USA to Greece and Spain it’s clear the centre cannot hold. It’s time to for the Scottish Government to decide who they stand with.
Ross Greer is a Green MSP for the West of Scotland and the Scottish Greens’ spokesperson on Education & Skills