Understand the problems. Understand their causes. Work to find solutions – Johann Lamont
My love of education goes back a long way. I was fortunate to have parents who understood its value – and its limitations – in their own lives. My father left school very early to help his widowed mother tend their croft. When as a young girl my mother was asked to put her book down and get on with chores, she vowed that if she ever had a daughter the girl would be allowed to read to her heart’s content, regardless of how many dishes required washing. That resolution explains my love of a good book and my aversion to a duster to this very day.
I was taken to the library from a very young age. My school in inner city Glasgow offered a wide range of subjects and wonderful teachers, I did my homework and later studied as a student in the Mitchell Library alongside a rich diversity of users. I accessed resources, opportunities and knowledge beyond the wildest dreams of my seafaring father.
My parents were both from Tiree. My mother as a bright child had to go to Oban High from her second year. So far from her family, unsupported, and pre the instant communication of the modern age, she found it difficult. It left her with a – rather irrational – distaste for Oban and a sense throughout her adulthood of her educational potential being unfulfilled.
I share these memories not, I hope, to up my score in some kind of Disadvantage Olympics, but because when we discuss power, where decisions are made, what the relationship between levels of government should be, this is not some theoretical or academic discourse. It is about understanding how lives can be changed. It matters where power is, how it is used, where choices are tested and why choices are made. And understanding too that change comes, not with its proclamation or its promise: change is not the aspiration but the delivery, the willing of means, the understanding of intended and unintended consequences of action by those with power.
And of course the past is not just a golden castle on the hill bathed with my fond memories. But there are lessons then and now about what politics is for, why it matters and why I now believe more than anything that there needs to be a degree of seriousness and thoughtfulness which is often absent from the glib slogan-swapping that passes for too much current ‘debate’.
Post Covid, more than ever, we know what inequality and disadvantage, stress and crisis look like. More than ever we need to get back to the basics of understanding power, understanding need and accepting it takes time, effort and a seriousness of purpose to change lives. We should leave the performance of politics at the door and do the job. Too much of policy is tested by its place on a placard or its value in a photo opportunity.
When I look back on my childhood, my student years, my two decades as a teacher, and my time as an MSP, I can see where lives were changed and where they were blighted. I believe there are some basics that need to be relearned.
Strathclyde Regional Council was much maligned in some quarters but decisions made there meant, for example, a six-year secondary school on the island of Tiree, and a redistribution of resources not just to fragile and remote communities but also actively into poor disadvantaged urban areas too. There was groundbreaking work on childcare, on child development, on support for those denied educational and economic opportunities. Glasgow City Council in the 1980s led the charge in reinventing a post-industrial city and building international recognition as a conference centre and a place of cultural and sporting excellence.
There were local authorities across the country managing to be imaginative and ambitious, even when the UK government was presiding over economic and social devastation. I recall councillors talking of the need for them to be a dented shield, doing their best to protect citizens from that devastation.
And while for some the Scottish Parliament was an assertion of nationhood, a stage on a journey, there were many like me who saw it as a means of bringing power closer, of ensuring that decisions were shaped by a fuller understanding of people’s lives and by those who would live with the consequences of the decisions made. Indeed, the Cooperative movement and many community organisations which had long advocated the decentralisation of power and a greater diversity in economic and social policy thinking saw the Scottish Parliament as having a pivotal role in making that happen.
In the early days of the Parliament we saw support for the voluntary sector, for the social economy and for cooperative development. There was an appreciation of the work of housing cooperatives and associations as a means to community and economic regeneration. We saw schemes to disperse civil service jobs out of the central belt. And here’s that ‘golden castle on the hill’ alert again: they did not all work. The tensions between levels of government with their own democratic authority; the pressure to direct resources to deliver on Scottish Parliament priorities; the challenge of the postcode lottery for those receiving services – these, combined with a regrettable attitude in some parts of the civil service that local authorities were just another ‘delivery agent’ meant that battle lines were drawn and the serious work of collaboration was largely abandoned.
With the constitutional debate taking centre stage, there was an inevitability that policy discussions became proxies for that debate – did it help or hinder the argument for independence? – rather than being judged on their own merits.
And we are now, I would argue, in the worst of all worlds. The Scottish Parliament, decentralised from an inflexible and often indifferent central government, has overseen a Scotland far more centralised, with councils, government agencies and third-sector and other organisations very clearly told the limits of their independence of action or argument. The change that comes from argument and discourse is gone, with only the certainty of those at the centre remaining.
Gone is the philosophy of the dented shield in tough times, as are regional economic and social action. Job dispersal as a means of sustaining fragile communities is no longer even a footnote. And absent too is the focus on delivery, on the long haul. Left behind is ‘live in the moment, one size fits all’ policy (even when it is wrapped in the clothes of empowerment). The performance of concern is everything. But the libraries that sustained children like me are shut down or rarely open. The social and economic initiatives that sought to sustain and regenerate communities have disappeared. The very services that protect and support individuals and families are largely hollowed out.
So, yes, we need to talk about where power should rest and which power should be exercised by whom and to what purpose. But more than anything we need to get serious. Basic stuff. Understand the problems. Understand their causes. Work to find solutions. Resource and monitor and develop those solutions. And cut out the bit where getting credit for seeming to care trumps all. Judging effective government by the results in people’s lives rather than a spun ‘line to take’ is tougher. Long-term, systematic and rigorous planning is less glamorous than endless initiatives announced with great fanfare. But we surely have had enough of aspiration running into the sand, of projects disappearing when the spotlight has gone. As I said: basics; seriousness of purpose. Unheralded and undervalued on Twitter maybe. But the great upside – the child who thrives, the adult who achieves, the vulnerable person who is safe, that matters far more.
Johann Lamont is a former teacher (1979-99) and retired MSP (1999-2022). She was leader of the Scottish Labour Party from 2011 to 2014.
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