Childcare has leapt to the top of the political agenda. It’s now one of the big issues of the referendum campaign, maybe the defining issue because it helps describe the kind of country we want to be. Alex Salmond chose the very first parliamentary day of 2014 to announce that the Scottish government is to hugely extend its childcare programme.
From this summer, all two-year-old children in families seeking work will be offered free childcare every school day for either a morning or an afternoon session. From next summer, that will be extended to two-year- old children in families on jobseekers allowance and certain other welfare benefits. Over the two years, that will involve 15,000 children or a third of all two-year-olds and cost nearly £60m.
In addition, the Scottish government is to match the Westminster government’s pledge to introduce free school meals for all pupils in the first three years of primary education. That will cost around £50m.
Mr Salmond freely admitted that this was only a down-payment on the “transformation of childcare” the SNP has promised in its independence white paper. But it allows him to illustrate what would be possible if Scotland were independent. His argument is that getting more young mothers into work would yield the Scottish government enough money in income tax to pay for the “free” childcare. And it would do more for the economy besides, not least creating 2,000 new jobs in childcare.
The tactic also answers the question the unionist parties have been asking since the white paper was published back in November – if more childcare is good for Scotland why not introduce it now? But having introduced it now, a more difficult question for the SNP emerges – if this can be done with the present powers, why does Scotland need independence?
But childcare wasn’t the only battle-cry of the first week back. David Cameron declared that he wanted to move the referendum debate on to more emotional ground – the close ties of family and culture between Scotland and the rest of Britain. But he ruled out coming north to debate the issues personally with Alex Salmond on TV. The pro-Union parties have also come under more pressure – from an unlikely alliance of Nicola Sturgeon and Henry McLeish – to publish their own white papers, outlining their alternatives to independence.
Meanwhile, south of the border, the Chancellor George Osborne was doing his bit to boost the cause of independence by announcing that he wasn’t nearly finished with his austerity programme. If the Conservatives win the next election, he promised another £25billion in cuts, half of it to come from the welfare budget.
This might bring a smile to the City fat-cats, if to no one else. But by Wednesday the fat-cats (bosses of our top 100 companies) were already smiling because that was the day when their earning overtook the average man or women’s salary for the entire year. The High Pay Centre told us that executive pay had increased by 74 per cent over the past decade to around £4m a year, while the average wage has remained pretty flat at around £26,000.
I wonder if any of the top executives were caught up in the chaos at Edinburgh airport on Tuesday. Apparently what happened was that a scanning machine at check-in threw up an alarming image of a possible bomb inside a suitcase. The check-in was shut down immediately and the owner of the suitcase was asked to give a swab sample from the palms of his hands. This showed signs of an explosive substance. The whole airport was shut down for the afternoon and a full emergency drill was put into effect.
It turned out however that the items in the suitcase had simply arranged themselves by chance into what looked like a bomb on the x-ray machine and the owner’s hands merely had traces of ordinary chemicals which are often mistaken for explosives. The only things left flying were questions. Did the airport managers over-react? Should the suitcase have been opened sooner – in a safe place? By even reporting the disruption, are we encouraging terrorists to try again?
At least it wasn’t the weather closing the airport. Not this time. Scotland escaped most of the storm-damage and flooding which struck the south and west coast of England on Monday and Tuesday. But 70mph winds and very high tides led to nearly 29 flood warnings being issued in Scotland, mainly along the coasts of Ayrshire, Arran, Argyll and Bute, and parts of the Firth of Clyde, including Helensburgh and Dumbarton.
I wonder if the year 2014 will be remembered for its weather storms or its political storms or for no storms at all.