No future guarantees

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 2 December 2013 in Editor's note

If ever there was a reason to think about how we choose our future, it is the thought of the world our children will grow up in.

What more persuasive an argument could there be for independence than a future where an increasing number of our children are forced into a life of penury?

And whoever advised Nicola Sturgeon – and it could well have been the lady herself – to frame her first question to Scotland’s Lib Dem Secretary of State on the television debate the day after the launch of the White Paper on independence on how many more children would be forced into poverty by 2020 if Scotland votes ‘No’, was inspired.

For if ever there was a reason to think about how we choose our future, it is the thought of the world our children will grow up in. Currency, banking, whether we are part of the EU; they all fall into administrative insignificance when you are faced with whether a child has a full stomach or a new pair of shoes. And despite the Secretary of State for Scotland accusing the Deputy First Minister of being disgraceful for channelling this line of questioning, the real disgrace is that the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that a further 65,000 Scottish children could be living below the poverty line by 2020 if the UK Government continues along its current trajectory of welfare reform. That is a fact. And that is something that as a Scottish Liberal Democrat, Alistair Carmichael could not defend. And Sturgeon was right to ask him what he thinks his job is.

The arguments will no doubt continue about whether we keep the pound or are welcomed into the European family but after last week’s White Paper launch, the question of whether independence will offer our future generations a fairer start in life will increasingly dominate. And there is one unassailable fact; the Union has not well protected our poor from harm.

Figures on child poverty have, for years both gone up and down. When Labour was in power at Westminster, they initially made great strides with child poverty at the party’s core – but they needed to do more. And right now, under the Tory Coalition, things are going in reverse. Women are out of work. Families are stretched. Benefits are being cut and some children in 2013 are being fed from food banks or not at all. That is a disgrace and it is doing us harm.

Which is why the SNP has – cynically or otherwise – put our young people at the very heart of its much awaited White Paper, the aptly named, Scotland’s Future. At its extreme, it promises a Scandic-like land where childcare comes free. A seductive prospect for hard pressed families struggling with the economic effects of a wholesale failure by both banks and politicians to have the common sense to recognise financial hubris when they see it. The state of our economy is not the fault of the poor but they are the ones being punished and they need change.

The SNP says it offers a vision for Scotland which is more just. Opponents say the sums don’t add up, that the SNP could do this now rather than then, that the policy is flawed or simply that free childcare is fantasy politics designed to take the nationalists where they want to be but will then be abandoned on the scrapheap of false promises and election bribes.
These things could be true but in the absence of an alternative plan, the lie will run and run.

And that is the significance of the publication of this weighty tome that is the so-called blueprint for independence. In some ways, it doesn’t matter that it presents nothing new, that it is simply a compendium of all that has come before, that it can’t say with certainty whether we will share the pound or be in the EU. But what it does do is provide a tangible, hard-copy reference book that says ‘we’ve shown you ours, so you show us yours’. And that is where the unionists are left wanting. They have no alternative plan other than more of the same.

The White Paper was deliberately launched with more a gentle phut than a bang. Everything about Salmond and Sturgeon was business-like, determined and normal, albeit in the presence of over 200 domestic and international journalists and set in the Glasgow Science Centre rather than the more august and, some would argue, more appropriate surroundings of the Scottish Parliament. It was a deliberate front to reflect a sense of common-place, of normality.

The publication of the White Paper was not a game-changer in itself but what it did was set down a marker. It said: we have arrived at this place, we have a guide and we are ready to go. Throw in a promise to make transformational change around childcare and the whole debate takes another direction. And that is the game-changer.

Up until last Tuesday, childcare was not the issue that was being hotly debated in reference to independence but now it is. In time, the White Paper may yet be seen as a fudge and a sham – the figures may not stack up and the ‘maybes’ might become ‘no’s’ – but its publication makes the whole idea of independence a tad more tangible and the headline on childcare prompts us to ask, ‘what kind of Scotland would we want if we could choose?’

Nicola Sturgeon wiped the floor with Alistair Carmichael in last week’s TV debate and when she told him, “You’ve not answered a single question I have asked you,” he would have to concur. The argument so far has been that it is incumbent on the ‘Yes’ campaign to find the answers, to offer the guarantees and provide the certainty for the future. But I think what the White Paper has thrown into sharp relief is that both sides of the divide need to not just ask questions but also provide answers on what they would do whether Scotland votes ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

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