Alex Massie

Scaremongering and smearing: just another day in the Scottish referendum campaign.

Scaremongering and smearing: just another day in the Scottish referendum campaign.
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I was surprised to discover this morning that Gordon Brown last night suggested the Scottish education system should be abolished and replaced by a new pan-UK curriculum and examination system.

This would indeed be a bold thing to recommend three months before the independence referendum. A surprise too and the sort of thing you'd expect to be all over the news today if it weren't, of course, the case that the press is irrevocably biased against the nationalists and determined to bury anything that might embarrass Unionists.

Still, Gordon said it. He must have. Otherwise why would Kenny Gibson MSP say Gordon Brown "has endorsed the idea of a UK-wide education system - which could only mean taking powers away from Scotland and giving them back to Westminster"?

Needless to say, nationalist websites and twitterers have slavishly followed the party line and, of course, that's their prerogative.

There are many things to say about Kenny Gibson's statement - released as a party press release - but the simplest thing to say is that it's a lie. Pure and simple.

No newspaper report I've seen does anything to substantiate the claim Gordon Brown wishes to abolish the Scottish education system (a system of which he was, you may recall, a great beneficiary). This omission is not surprising. Brown has just published a book, My Scotland, Our Britain in which he spells out his vision for the future. If he felt like abolishing Scottish education you might think he might have said so in this tome. Perhaps this means it's a super-secret plan? Or, maybe, there is no such plan.

Because this is what Brown is reported to have said yesterday:

Mr Brown cited “astonishing new surveys of young people” carried out one year apart which found that around half of Scottish 14 to 17-year-olds “do not want to be part of an exclusively Scottish education system but want a UK system where the curriculum and exams are the same for everyone in the UK”.

Mr Brown went on: “Scottish young people’s support for the same educational curriculum and exams across the UK is stronger than any poll would report for any group of adults, showing that young people are not the newly enfranchised ‘nationalist generation’ of the independence movement’s dreams but a newly enfranchised and also newly empowered ‘networked generation’ - happy to be seen as Scottish first but suspicious of being seen as exclusively Scottish.”

He added: “As I argue in My Scotland, Our Britain, breaking all links with the UK makes no sense - in this case for our young people and for their education.”

“Instead Scotland retained its own institutions which over decades and centuries continued to develop,” he said.

Granted, fat-headed reporting claims this "appears to challenge" the continued existence of Scotland's distinctive education system but anyone who can read can understand that he did no such thing. He certainly made no suggestion there should, three hundred years after the Union, now be a pan-UK approach to schooling.

What he said - and it really is not difficult to understand - is that there's some evidence (perhaps of dubious worth) suggesting that Scottish children place less value on the distinctiveness of the Scottish system than their parents do. They're just not bothered.

Now I wouldn't take these surveys too seriously but it's quite obvious Brown was using the kids' attitudes as an example of inter-connectedness that, in Brown's view and perhaps in theirs too, render nationalism relatively meaningless. You might disagree with Brown's interpretation but it is not possible, if you have a brain, to consider this a call to abolish the Scottish education system.

I assume most nationalists do have brains. So why dwell on this? Only because it is worth noting that the SNP and their cheerleaders are never done accusing their opponents of scaremongering. Sometimes that accusation has some merit; Unionists have said plenty of stupid things during this campaign. But it bears repeating that Yes voters are just as guilty of scaremongering as anyone else. And just as guilty of smearing their opponents.

As in this instance: vote Yes otherwise the Unionists might, it is hinted, abolish the Scottish education system and replace Highers with A-Levels. That might not be the end of it either, you know. They might abolish the Scottish parliament too. You never know! That this is all bollocks-on-stilts and made up bollocks-on-stilts at that does not seem to matter very much at all.

It is dishonest even beyond the accepted bounds of political mendacity. But it is sadly typical.

And so is this. According to Mike Small, custodian of Bella Caledonia, Gordon Brown's remarks are typical of "the mindset of those Scots who have been institutionalised to believe everything about their own culture is inferior".

Oh really? I do sometimes wish that Unionists would cease prefacing their remarks with "as a proud Scot" (because doing so is awkwardly defensive) but you can see why they sometimes feel like doing so given the nationalists' tendency to assume they are better Scots than their opponents.

Hark at this, anyway: Gordon Brown has, like so many others, been institutionalised to believe everything about Scotland is inferior. This may come as a surprise to English readers but, hey ho, there you go. Anyway, it is written, I think, with a straight face. No evidence is supplied, of course, to substantiate the claim but then Yes voters have always been excellent mind-readers.

Now Mike Small is just sensible enough to admit that not everything is wonderful in Scotland. There are, he concedes, problems with the Scottish education system. It is worth quoting his analysis in full:

Sorting the education system is a must, from smaller class sizes to pre-school education to free universities. The new Scottish Government should take on and shake up the university sector with its bloated hierarchical structures. In 2009 Scotland’s 18 university principals received an average salary of more than £225,000 – up nearly three times the rate of inflation.

The highest-paid principal is Professor Duncan Rice, from Aberdeen University, whose salary package rose by 17% from £256,000 to £299,000. The next-highest-paid principal is Professor Sir Tim O’Shea, from Edinburgh University, who is paid a total salary package of £286,000 after an increase of 7%. Professor Anton Muscatelli, the principal of Glasgow University, is the third-highest-paid with a combined salary package of £283,000. These are ridiculous salaries and a bold and ambitious move would be to set some sort of restructuring of these roles and pay structures. This would be both a real saving and a symbol of a shift towards a more democratic, leaner higher education sector.

1 in 5 of young people leave school with literacy issues.

That's it. I know which of these problems is the greater scandal. It's not the one Mike Small concentrates his fire upon.

But then I'm not a leftist who thinks universities are being corrupted by market values and competition. Nor am I the kind of person who thinks it a scandal that the Principal of Edinburgh University - an institution with annual income of nearly £750m - is paid handsomely.

I do think it mildly troubling that 20% of children leave school with literacy issues. So troubling, in fact, that it might be worth getting angry about. I know it seems a small thing when compared to bloated salaries for university chiefs but there you go.

But acknowledging that requires one to admit that Scotland can be crap. It requires recognising that there's a dreadful complacency and unearned superiority afflicting Scotland and our attitudes - at least those attitudes prevalent on the left - to public services.

These people are forever peering over the border to be horrified by what they see there before patting themselves on the back and reflecting, smugly, that at least we do things differently here.

And so we do. So differently in fact that children from the poorest fifth of households in England are significantly more likely to attend leading universities than their Scottish counterparts. Scotland's poor perform, as measured by the PISA tests, at the level of pupils in Turkey. As the Scottish government admits itself  “while socio-economic status is as likely as in other countries to affect students, the effect it has is likely to be greater than in other countries.” In other words: it is better to be poor in other countries than in Scotland.

Sure, the system works for many but it fails far too many. In Glasgow just 7% of state-educated kids will leave with five passes at Higher. We all know this is complicated and failure, far from being an orphan, has a dozen causes but we also know - if we are interested in being honest - that this is a disastrous national failure from which most of our other problems then stem. For all the hard work and good intentions this is still a school system stuffed with failure.

We don't pay as much attention to this as we should. Perhaps because doing so would require some hard truths and even harder learning. It would demand we shed the unco guid arrogance that insists everything is fine because it's Scottish. It would demand we recognise there's no-one to blame for this but ourselves. Not London. Not Westminster. Not England. Not even self-loathing Unionists.

The far-too-frequently lamentable state of the nation's education system is no-one's fault, and no-one's responsibility, but our own. Perhaps independence would prod us towards improvement. But a lack of independence is not to blame for the fact so many Scots leave school with what Mike Small tenderly describes as literacy issues. That's on us and, most especially, on a left-wing consensus that has governed Scotland for nearly 20 years now.

But at least we're not like England, eh? At least we're better than them. Just another of the lies we like to tell ourselves. But what does the truth matter when there's a referendum to win and a fairytale to believe?

UPDATE: Mike Small tweets to say "in no way" does he think he's a "better" Scot than his opponents, just "less doused in self-loathing".