Former FM has a poor record of helping the poor
If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Greenock Town Hall the second weekend of September, don’t be startled if you see red flags fluttering alongside Saltires on its balconies. Having abandoned the stupid pretence that they are allies not enemies of the SNP, Alba’s interim leaders now look all set to attack the Sturgeonistas on their left flank. The venue for their inaugural party conference – smack bang in the centre of Scotland’s most deprived district – we’ll be told in the run up to this shindig, has been carefully selected to signal radical intention. By assailing the present Scottish Government for not deploying all the powers it possesses to alleviate the plight of the poor, the new breakaway party will aim to make its first breakthrough at next year’s local council elections in places like the grimmest parts of Inverclyde.
Alex Salmond first attempted to do this during the recent Holyrood election. In a campaign stop he made in Greenock, he condemned the levels of deprivation and poverty in the West of Scotland and elsewhere as a “political scandal”, declaring that “bold and radical action” was required “to ensure that such inequality is no longer accepted by politicians in the Scottish Parliament”. The Alba Party founder then proceeded to roll out a radical five-point plan:
- Introduce an annual £500 payment to assist half a million low earnings households in Scotland 🏠
- Increase the Scottish Child Payment to £40 per week for 400,000 children in quarter of a million households 🧒
- Extend free school meals to all primary and secondary pupils in Scotland 🍎
- Double the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) from £30 to £60 for 16-19 year olds in school and college 📚
- Introduce universal access to sports facilities for all children and young people under 18 ⚽️
I would like to swiftly point out that the emojis were tacked on by Alba’s digital communicators, not by me. A bit frivolous for such a serious subject, some folk might think. Personally, I’ve no objection to a few gimmicky graphics if there exist any voters out there who don’t know what a household or a child is. I think you might find, though, that such types would also struggle to scrawl an X on a ballot paper. But we’ll let that pass. The important point is that the aforementioned five-point plan is attempting to put social justice at the centre of Scottish political debate. Something of which William McIlvanney would have approved, writing as he did:
There has developed a tendency to judge a society by how much money it can generate, no matter how few bank accounts the bulk of that money comes to rest in.
Social justice is not some optional extra which can be fitted in once we get our sums right. It is the very principle which will determine the rightness or wrongness of our sums.
I’m sure Alex Salmond would nod in firm agreement at that. But here’s the thing: he was First Minister for more than seven years (and SNP leader for far longer) yet did next-to-nothing in all that time to seriously advance the cause of social justice in Scotland. From May 2007 to October 2014 his administration certainly made no serious attempt to implement any of the five radical proposals listed above.
The Scottish Socialist Party launched its free school meals campaign back in 2001. So it has taken two whole decades for another party in this land to advocate every state school child in Scotland being served a nutritious lunch – something all pupils in Finland started to receive when their country was poverty-stricken and menaced by Stalin’s Red Army. The fact that Mr Salmond has only now perceived the pressing need to do this is, to my mind, a far darker stain on his lengthy stint in St Andrew’s House than anything he was falsely accused of doing during his criminal trial. Think how many thousands of Scottish schoolchildren struggled to learn during all that time because they were too hungry to concentrate in class!
Before anyone pipes up about Scotland having free tuition fees or free medical prescriptions, please note these are universal benefits so don’t lessen inequality. On the contrary, bribing middle-class taxpayers with their own money can sometimes widen the gaps between rich and poor. There is ample evidence that Scotland’s FE colleges were starved of funds so school-leavers from extremely affluent backgrounds could attend the nation’s elite universities for free. Plenty of sunny smiles in the leafy terraces around Stockbridge, Byres Road and Broughty Ferry when Mr Salmond proclaimed: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students.”
As I’ve argued in a previous blog, I welcome this stalwart’s return to the political frontline and think he could still make some further valuable contribution to the independence cause. Alex Salmond isn’t, however, the person Alba conference delegates should pick to spearhead a party seeking to portray itself as more bold and radical than the SNP. Even some instant converts to this cause cannot avoid acknowledging his wee credibility problem in that department. George Kerevan wrote in the National on March 29:
It is no surprise then that the Alba Party’s statement of aims explicitly describes the organisation as “social democratic” in contrast to the neoliberal economics of the SNP’s Growth Commission report written by corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson. The early rush of folk joining the Alba Party (now some thousands) appears to be heavily tilted to those who opposed the Growth Report and its conservative advocacy of keeping the UK pound.
That said, the differences in political and economic ideology between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond are slight. Salmond himself was an early adopter of the Irish globalist, free trade, limited regulation model for Scotland. This model went belly up with the bank crash of 2008.
Tell me about it. I covered the fallout of that socio-economic catastrophe as a correspondent in Dublin. I remember cringing when Scotland’s first nationalist first minister flew across the Atlantic to trumpet the “emergence of the Celtic lion of Scotland” to rival Ireland’s Celtic Tiger.
Now, I accept, there has been no silly talk about big cats from him of late. But that doesn’t alter the sad fact that Mr Salmond’s radical credentials remain flimsy to say the least. Kenny MacAskill has polished his up a wee bit in recent years by waxing romantic about the Red Clydesiders in a recent book. But the reality is that these twa Lithgae lads can point to only a brief flirtation with socialism and republicanism. Such was the dual objective of the 79 Group, which sought to swing the SNP towards left-wing nationalism in response to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power. But neither of them lasted long in that.
Documentary film footage still exists of a young Mr Salmond storming out of the conference chamber when this splinter group was publicly booted out by the Nats’ then party leader Gordon Wilson. But the cheeky chappy was soon readmitted after renouncing the faction’s unacceptably radical objectives. That was way back in the early 1980s. Alba’s interim chieftain can’t point to anything dramatic he (or any other presently prominent figure in the party) did in the subsequent four decades to seriously try to end the scandal of social inequality in Scotland. Does he really imagine his new party’s political enemies aren’t going to point that out?
One indisputable fact Alex Salmond has unambiguously demonstrated over almost half a century is that he is a political chameleon who will happily adopt any ideological posture he thinks might temporarily aid his personal crusade for independence – in whatever form it might map out. Republican or monarchist? Neoliberal or social democratic? Pro-Trump or anti-Trump? Oor Eck has been all of these – and more.
Flexibility and pragmatism can be virtues and might nudge opinion poll ratings up a few fractional points now and then. But they are no solid foundation for national or social emancipation. Social justice cannot be brought about by putting places like Inverclyde in the national spotlight for just one weekend. The real reason Greenock Town Hall was chosen, I’m told, is because all other venues were either unavailable or too large and expensive for this fragile, fledgling party. Cllr Chris McEleney (the former SNP group leader there) apparently used his local influence to secure it at an affordable rate. If so, there was no real political motive in the choice of venue. It was purely practical and financial. Which is quite depressing when you think about it. A true indication of how spectacularly Alba failed to make a breakthrough in the recent Holyrood election under its present interim ‘leadership’ (which cannot all be attributed to a broadcasting blackout). And an early warning of the cynical spin we should be on our guard against when assessing this, as all other, set of power-seekers.
If Alex Salmond is sincere about ending the political scandal of enduring inequality in Scotland, he will take to the stage at Greenock Town Hall on Saturday September 11 and relinquish the leadership of Alba to somebody who can call for bold and radical action with some credibility.