If we have learnt nothing else from the torrent of information concerning the credit crunch disseminated over the past few months then it must surely be that promises are easily broken – especially when it comes to money.
With 370,000 current and former students now owing more than £2bn to the Student Loans Company in Scotland, the SNP was right to promise a return to the much yearned for student grant in their 2007 manifesto. However, rather than experiencing a slow down in the growth of student debt over the 18 months since Alex Salmond took office, Scottish students have in fact seen their rate of debt acquisition increase by eight per cent.
For those who read with scepticism the SNP flyers promising a government that would dispense with “expensive and discredited” student loans—widely distributed on Scottish campuses before the 2007 election—it will not have come as a shock that, shortly before Christmas, that vision was more than slightly scaled back. Education secretary Fiona Hyslop is now considering three options for the future of student finance: loans may still be scrapped slowly over an indefinite period of “transition”; otherwise, loans may merely be supplemented with grants with or without full grants being made available to students from the poorest of households.
Having now announced that the amount of money pre-allocated to students from 2010 will only increase by £30m—far too little to scrap loans entirely—those studying in Scotland can be sure that any move towards full grants would be very slow indeed.
As always, there is an excuse: “There are a number of restrictions outside this government’s control which may prevent us fully delivering on all of our commitments.” Hampered by her inability to control the volume of cash lent to students by the Westminster Treasury, Ms Hyslop claims her hands are tied.
But this is not the only SNP policy facing an uncertain future this week ostensibly at the hands of Westminster. The urgently required second Forth road bridge may well fail to leave South Queensferry as Chancellor Alistair Darling quashed Scottish finance minister, John Swinney’s plans to borrow money for construction from future Scottish budgets: “Their particular scheme…is something that we simply don’t do,” he said. “They ought to have been aware of it and they could have found out if they had asked earlier.”
In light of this, it is difficult to argue with Labour MSPs who have accused Mr Swinney of submitting plans he knew would be rejected in order to supply himself with political ammunition in the quest for independence. And indeed, the strategy of announcing an unachievable policy before blaming its failure on some action of the Westminster government has been well used by Nationalist ministers.
It may be too much to expect Alex Salmond to admit over-enthusiasm in his profusion of promises to students, pensioners, school children, prisoners, victims, patients and healthcare workers at the last election. However, Labour parliamentarians are right to require that SNP ministers cease using their own failure to draw up an achievable manifesto as a reason for destruction of the union. The SNP’s mistakes are their own and—despite the valid arguments which may be made for independence—it will not solve government imprudence.