edinburgh schools scandal

Oxgangs Primary School, Edinburgh

“It’s not been great, has it?” is a common refrain I’ve heard about this election campaign.

The General Election last year had a certain insurgent, watershed-moment dynamic that this campaign was never going to replicate. However, we probably all thought that there would be something more interesting than political interviews by Gary: Tank Commander to keep us all engaged.

The danger is that when this campaign finishes on Thursday, it’s only the start of a new settlement in Scottish politics that bears little fruit. The fear is that we whinge and counter-whinge over the finer points of SNP domination. Meanwhile, the political bubble – massively enlarged by indyref – turns in on itself, in a futile but furious pursuit of petty point-scoring.

Witness #DandyGate. It’s less than a week until an election, and the reaction and counter-reaction to a spoof-that-wasn’t has kept many activists busy on social media for 24 hours.

Maybe I’m just the overly-serious, grumpy one. But weren’t we supposed to spend elections talking about, I dunno, real stuff?

It’s not like nothing has happened over the past couple of months. ‘Dodgy Dave’ was exposed as up to his neck in the tax avoidance/evasion scandal sparked by the #PanamaPapers. How quickly that came and went, but it appeared to hardly even make a dent on the Scottish elections. Like there’s no super-rich north of the border who are hiding their money offshore.

The media haven’t helped. I attended a BBC audience debate on tax two days after #PanamaPapers broke. The first question was about whether we need a tax justice revolution in Scotland. Only two politicians answered the question, before the presenter happily moved the discussion onto the finer points of the SNP’s council tax changes. Our parochial political culture, framed by the media, is stifling.

But us activists could probably do a bit more to put big issues on the agenda. If we don’t question who holds real power in Scotland, why they hold and what can be done about it… What else are we going to spend the next five years doing?

After the EU referendum, there’s nothing in sight between here and the General Election in 2020 and Scottish election in 2021 (sadly, I don’t count the Council Elections next year as a major political event). I don’t know about you, but I got bored of faux-social media scandals about a year ago. The idea of that being the focal point of Scottish politics for the next five years is depressing at best.

So at Common Weal we thought, rather than whining about it, let’s try and do a bit of campaigning work on a big political issue in Scotland – one that, in our view, exposes power and how it works in modern Scotland.

The Edinburgh Schools Scandal was a very, very bad PR day for PFI – and a very big opportunity for activists who want to challenge the shady aspects of elite profiteering in Scotland. Endangering children is not a good look. So let’s take advantage of it.

The Private Finance Initiative in some ways gets to the heart of what ‘neoliberalism’ – that famous concept with the ugly title – actually means in practise. Which is, simply put, that the state changes its laws and regulations to give the private-sector free reign. PFI is hyper-capitalism: let the rich get richer, and make taxpayers foot the bill.

When you get into the figures of the cost of PFI to future generations of Scottish taxpayers, it is eye-watering. The public-sector is paying consortiums of banks and builders up to five or six times the build-cost in debt repayments.

And now we know what many always suspected: the consortiums got greedy and cut corners, with schools in Edinburgh and Glasgow built without even fitting the standard ‘wall ties’ used on such buildings. Kids’ lives have been endangered in pursuit of maximum profit.

This is a genuinely cross-party issue. It started under the Tories, was accelerated massively by Gordon Brown under New Labour, and a new version of public-private contracts (with some of the excesses curbed) is now in place under the SNP. PFI may be dead in Scotland but its birth-child remains. The costs continue to pile up – just not quite as quickly as in the past.

We don’t quite know how bad the debts are, or how poor the quality of the building regulations are, because the detail of PFI and PPP contracts are kept secret. This is another key feature of the neoliberal era. Secrecy for the super-rich; surveillance for the rest of us.

So we’ve launched a petition with People Vs PFI and Jubilee Scotland to Open the Books on PFI/PPP. Transparency is, we believe, the first step to being able to legally broach the issue of debt cancellation/renegotiation.

On Tuesday May 3rd, 7.00pm, just two days before the election, we’ve got a public meeting in Edinburgh to discuss it. Speakers include economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, who have been researching public-private contracts in Scotland; and Edinburgh-based architect Malcolm Fraser, who has spoken out against what he saw at the time as the shoddy building standards of PFI schools in Edinburgh.

A lot of people interested in this sort of thing won’t be able to make it as they’ll be knocking doors for their respective party. Fill your boots. But we felt it was important to put this sort of event on as a marker for the future.

Despite the tone and texture of this election campaign, we believe that afterwards there’s still lots of us who want to put aside party allegiances, and get down to the gritty work of challenging the corporate-state nexus of neoliberal power in modern Scotland.

I know there’s many people, in political parties and none, who will agree.

Ben Wray (@ben_wray1989) is head of policy & research at Common Weal

If you are attending this event, please carry on the conversation in our comments space below