David Jamieson

David Jamieson

SQA Victory: Reform Without Reformism

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In his weekly column, Conter editor David Jamieson says the school student victory confronts us with a bizarre but welcome new phenomenon – significant reform in the absence of parliamentary reformism.

When Scottish education secretary John Swinney finally caved-in, after a week of defending the SQA’s decision to downgrade over 75,000 pupils grades, his retreat was total. Following teacher recommendations, the class of 2020 has an 85.1% A-C grade at higher, far out-stripping any past year group. As some teachers have suggested, we can just as easily view this as a correction as ‘grade inflation’.

There’s still no dismissing the fact that the last week has shredded Scotland’s hated school examination system. It will likely limp on, given the feeble reviews established by Swinney. And yet this is a profound victory and an encroachment of the Scottish working class into areas of public policy from which they are routinely debarred.

It was achieved regardless to the domination of Reformism in Scottish Politics. The centre-left has been in office in Scotland for two decades – an unusual record in the politics of the modern west. Its parliament boasts a healthy majority of centre-left MSPs (even if you exclude the Liberal Democrats). But this has been a story of what is called ‘Reformism without reforms’. Not in the sense that literally no legislation has moved through the chamber in those decades, but rather that substantial, structural reform is neither the offer nor mission of these governments and parties.

The SQA victory is a ‘reform’ of sorts – for all its potentially fleeting and haphazard character – achieved without the willing participation of any official Reformist force or process. The class of 2020 are the Holy Grail sought by generations of Scottish policy makers, and not least by the present administration for whom ‘closing the attainment gap’ is the flagship policy. They have significantly narrowed it, but in a way that discredits the government.

To be clear, the threat of a vote of no confidence held over Swinney’s head by parliamentary opponents certainly weakened his position. But it’s not as though Scottish Labour or the Scottish Greens were actually campaigning for this outcome. Everyone in the chamber stumbled blind into it – particularly the Scottish Tories, whose base will be outraged by the threat of working-class kids taking middle-class university places.

Swinney was mindful of this danger as well. His party have long sought to court the middle class. To protect their social position he said he would expand university and college places. This seems destined to cause more policy failure further down the line. NUS Scotland instantly called for more funds and expanded schemes to help working-class students through university. A generation of non-reforming Reformists are about to learn the dangers of raising expectations.

These events impinge upon the political process at a most opportune moment. Four polls in a row have now put support for Scottish independence ahead of the union. The panic in London toppled the useless Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw. These polls are fixing nationalisms in place at both parliaments. The position of the SNP, after a month of turmoil for the party, appears yet untouchable.

The Tory party, having delivered the worst pandemic and economic responses in Europe, likewise maintains its dominance. In neither country can the official opposition touch its hapless, hegemonic governing party. The Tory and SNP leaderships strut like giant clowns through the landscape, crushing whole industries and institutions under moronic foot – their opponents barely ankle high and bewildered.

The SQA victory is therefore all the more welcome. It holds out the possibility of political change by self-organisation at the base of society, even as official politics remain in a deep freeze created by shifting constitutional-ideological plates and the shock of pandemic and post-pandemic conditions. And they hold out more hope for working-class influence in the independence movement.

The (now mercifully marginal – compared, for example to the Glasgow equal pay strike) element of pro-independence sentiment which resists popular initiative as a threat to the governing party, has misunderstood this dynamic as much as left-unionists who imagine that support for independence inevitably means a kind of ‘social lobotomy’ – with large areas of the population forgetting they need education, housing and jobs because they want a given settlement on the national question.

We are left, instead with a puzzling but potentially hopeful image. Irregular but real reform of class-political institutions, without the coherent intentions of any body of parliamentary reform. Could the chaotic churn in society after the pandemic shock provide more such opportunities for change?

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