Lesley Riddoch: Blossom – What Scotland Needs To Flourish (Luath)

Lesley Riddoch: Blossom – What Scotland Needs To Flourish (Luath)
Paul Hutcheon, Herald Scotland
21.09.13

Scotland’s economy may be sluggish but the "independence industry" is booming. Barely a week goes by without a pamphlet, report or book being published on our constitutional "status", otherwise known as the favourite obsession of the tartan political class.

I feared Blossom would be part of this trend: another boring, technical offering on some tedious aspect of a debate that is already leaving people fatigued. However, these anxieties were misplaced. With three decades behind her in print and broadcasting, Blossom confirms Lesley Riddoch’s reputation as one of our top campaigning journalists.

Most reporters, myself included, feel uncomfortable about becoming active in a cause, but Riddoch instinctively likes to get her hands dirty. She founded the feminist magazine Harpies And Quines, assumed an important role in the Isle of Eigg Trust, and is currently a director of Nordic Horizons, a group that brings experts to Holyrood.

Most debates on independence obsess about what Riddoch dismisses as "detail" and "process". Blossom, by contrast, considers Scotland’s deep-seated social problems and almost invites the reader to consider whether independence is part of the answer. She believes so, but is by no means a tub-thumper.

Unlike many people on the Left, she favours community-led solutions over statist policies when drilling into the country’s intractable problems. On health, she makes the point that parts of Scotland continue to be blighted by the worst outcomes in Europe. When a group of alpha males formed the Drumchapel Men’s Health Group in the 1990s, she noted that the regional health board declined to offer funding.

On housing, she raves about a cooperative in West Whitlawburn that helped transform the lives of its residents, but notes that co-ops are considered the poor relation in the housing family. She tells of similar frustrations on land ownership. The buy-out of Eigg was a huge success, she argues, but since then "it’s generally been business as usual for Scotland’s landowners".

Local government also fits her narrative. Instead of the system empowering local citizens, she believes the status quo of "enormous" local authorities does the opposite.

Speaking to a man who was angry about a failing light in an underpass, she said to him: "Change it yourself if it annoys you so much." His reply was telling: "It’s not my job – why should I?"

Whereas the SNP used to look west to Ireland for salvation, Riddoch looks east to Scandinavia. In her chapter on women in public life, she contrasts the appalling lack of childcare provision in Scotland with the progressive policies of Norway. This is a point well made, although the election last week of a centre-right Norwegian government on a platform of tax-cutting shakes the foundations a little.

Where the book can be questioned is her tentative assumption that independence would be more likely to lead to better results. Many of the social problems cited in Blossom could be tackled by Holyrood, but MSPs across successive administrations have largely failed to produce meaningful policies.

Since 1999, I would say the Scottish Parliament’s policy legacy can be summed up as: the funding of "free" services at the expense of targeted help for deprived communities; almost no progress in narrowing the divide in educational outcomes; and the centralisation of public services.

Virtually none of the solutions floated by Riddoch – direct funding of empowered community groups; smaller local authorities; gender balance on the boards of public bodies – has been embraced by Holyrood, whose politicians cannot let go of the power they have. The problem is not a lack of legislative control; instead, the issue is how 129 MSPs have failed to use existing levers to reduce the inequalities the author rightly condemns.

Riddoch can also overstate apparent differences between "Scottishness" and its British equivalent. Sweeping statements such as "folk are generally happier than they are down south", and "the expectation of exclusion is at the core of Scottish identity" hit a bum note. Minor grumbles aside, though, Blossom is a welcome contribution to the debate on the country Scotland could be if politicians raised their sights. Her arguments may not be a game-changer for independence, but her prescriptions would make for a radical Holyrood manifesto. Perhaps she should stand in 2016.