I have strong views on the public sector strikes – I also have strong views on the way the Scottish media have addressed this vital topic. So I had some hopes for Call Kaye - a Radio Scotland vox pop morning phone-in programme that often tackles important and relevant topics.
I have only phoned this programme twice, to my recollection, and on each occasion, I got a hearing, so I had high hopes for this morning’s topic – the public service strike. But I had a reservation about how they had defined the issue in advance, essentially narrowing the debate to the teachers’ strike, and ignoring - in company with the rest of the Scottish media - an aspect that I consider central to the debate in Scotland, namely that it is arguable that one can support the grievances of the strikers and support the strike in England but not in Scotland.
So I duly Called Kaye at 9.00 a.m to try to get a slot on the programme. I gave my name and location to the person at the other end, then came the question – “And what do you want to say, Mr. Curran?” I knew the risk, and could have camouflaged my question, but decided to be upfront.
“I think you are addressing the wrong question. Instead of asking callers do they support the strike, the question should be should those who support the strike be supporting it in Scotland, given the fact the Scottish government supports the public service workers, and has tried to resist pressure to attack their pensions. This strike will harm Scotland but have little effect on the UK Government.”
Maybe I imagined it, but I thought I detected a chill breeze coming down the line. Call Kaye didn’t call Peter back. I won’t be calling Kaye again. But what I have to say about today’s programme is what I would have said even if had I got my shot on air.
The programme was determined to focus on the teachers, who are a minority, and to some degree an unrepresentative minority of the strikers. They are a comparatively well-paid group, with average earnings in excess of the average UK wage, with long holidays. It was abundantly clear that the programme producers had decided that this made them an easy target, and that this would produce a good debate, within the parameters that such programmes set for debate – not to illuminate to issues or the topic, but to produce lively airtime by feeding prejudices. In other words, the modus operandi of the tabloid press, now under national scrutiny.
Of course, Kaye Adams couldn’t entirely control the agenda – and doubtless would say she wasn’t trying to – and token recognition was given at various points to the wider issue, but when the a caller did manage to escape from the straightjacket Call Kaye wanted to keep them in, it was in spite of the rigid agenda.
The callers fell more or less evenly into two groups – those who predictably supported the strike totally, comprising actual strikers and or public service workers, or trade union officials or Labour MSPs, and those who were vociferously against it. The debate was entirely lacking in any nuanced comment.
Those who were against the strike seemed to harbour a generalised resentment of teachers – of their salary, their promotion prospects, their pension – and many seemed to think that the teaching profession was actually a child minding service to permit parents to work full time.
At one and the same time, they managed to disparage teachers and their worth to society while screaming blue bloody murder about the insupportable hardships even one day of withdrawal of teaching services did to their child minding expectations and to the children’s education.
They were talking about professionals, graduates in the main, to whom they entrust their children or their grandchildren to daily, who are in loco parentis, and who will have a profound effect on their children’s entire life, during and after their school years – on their understanding of life, of society, in their basic skills, in their capacity to earn a living, in their ability to function as members of a complex, deeply uncertain society in the challenging times ahead.
Yet they managed to believe that teachers were overpaid, greedy and selfish in bringing sharply to that society’s attention how much they needed them. Shame on these people, and to the plummy-voiced lady who mounted her vociferous attacks on striking teachers.
The conspiracy of wealth, power and unelected privilege that is the UK’s apology for a democracy, represented by the party of wealth and greed, stuffed with obscenely wealthy men and women, the Tory Party, and their compliant puppets, the supine, expedient, ineffectual Liberal Democrats, appear to have done a bloody good job of divide and rule, of setting a stereotype of the greedy public sector against the hard-working, virtuous private sector in the minds of ordinary people, or at least those who attacked the teachers on this programme.
Thank God, they do not appear to be representative of the public at large, if recent polls are anything to go by.
A society that is grossly unequal, resting on the commitment of all the major UK parties through three incompetent governments in the last thirty years or so to the market principle of free bargaining, of the naked pursuit of wealth and wealth creation any price, a society that allowed bankers and spivs and speculators to bring the United Kingdom to the bring of economic collapse by reckless gambling has been brought sharply to an awareness of what the public sector really means, and their response has been to protect their friends – the wealthy – and attack the poorest and the most vulnerable.
The Labour Party and its apparatchiks are deeply ambivalent about the whole affair, because they brought this about by failing in government, by failing the people they were elected to serve, by offering up their Great Leader, one Anthony Lynton (Call me Tony!) Blair, a man with an untold fortune and an annual income assessed at £15m as a shining example of what unrestrained pursuit of wealth can do for a sharp political operator, a lesson well-learned by New – and Old – Labour politicians.
The trades union officials manage to do very nicely, thank you, out of their version of democracy and remuneration structuring, not to mention a route to Westminster on a gravy train of Labour patronage that offers even more loot, and eventual ennoblement to the lucky ones. No where is this more evident than among the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Trades Union hierarchy.
But in Scotland we have a party in Government committed to the ordinary people, to a vibrant private sector and to an effective, well-resourced public sector. The only thing standing between them and the full ability to realise a truly balanced society with human values is the structure of the UK, the Palace of Westminster and the self-serving venality of the Labour Party and its friends. (The Tories and the LibDems are now politically irrelevant to Scotland.)
This strike, valid and proportionate - and legal – was the right thing to do in England. It was the wrong thing to do in Scotland. It hurts Scotland to no purpose at a time of maximum economic vulnerability. It hurt a government and a society that – despite Call Kaye’s callers - values and supports its public servants.
That was the issue Call Kaye – and the rest of the media – should have addressed, instead of setting the teachers up as an easy target. The Scottish media, not for the first time, have failed in their role of telling the truth to power by superficial and glib analysis of issues. I can only hope against hope that they don’t do it again, because there’s more to come …
S4M-01440 John Swinney: Public Sector Pensions—That the Parliament recognises and appreciates the valuable work done by Scotland’s public sector workers; notes the importance of pensions that are affordable, sustainable and fair and believes that long-term pension reforms must be taken forward with consent and in partnership; registers its strong opposition to the UK Government’s decision to impose a general levy on pension contributions and considers this to be a cash grab for the purposes of deficit reduction rather than a move to secure the long-term sustainability of public sector pensions; regrets the fact that UK ministers appear to be relishing the prospect of strike action, which will cause major disruption and inconvenience to ordinary members of the public across Scotland; condemns the UK Government’s threat to cut Scotland’s budget by £100 million next year alone, on top of drastic cuts to Scotland’s budget, if the Scottish Government does not implement the UK Government’s immediate levy on pensions contributions, and calls on the UK Government to reverse its short-term pensions cash grab.