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21 June 2016

Democracy

Winston Churchill said – and I paraphrase - that democracy was the worst way to run a country but that there was no better alternative.

For democrats it has been a depressing few weeks. The referendum campaign has been led by campaigns on both sides of the argument that have failed to bring forward any positive vision of what might be delivered by their preferred option. I am glad not to be part of either formal campaign.

While I think politicians have let themselves down, more importantly they have let the electorate down. Most will have less sense of the implications of their vote than at any previous vote that I have been involved in over 50+ years.

But at the end of the day, it was a defeated US Presidential Candidate who summed up this awkward process of democracy when he said, “The people have spoken – the b****rds!”

Daisy and Nicola at the
Scottish Parliament
But there is hope. I have had Daisy Collins – shortly to be late pupil at Banff Academy and thereafter to be a History and Politics student – with me for a week in Parliament. Learning yes, but also doing some real hard work. Like many of her generation she brings fresh insight and new energy to the craft of politics. Privilege to have you on board Daisy, however briefly.

And the 2014 referendum – and this year's Scottish Parliament election – showed that we can trust the young with our future. 16 and 17 year olds engaged in genuine and diverse debate on big decisions that will matter for all our futures.

The very word democracy is far from new. “Demos” is the Greek word for “people” and “kratia” that for “rule”. And its origins date back some 2,000 years.

It came to the English language in the 16th century via French. Demonstrating once again the acquisitive nature of the language we use and which has been gifted to us, and the world, by our generous neighbours south of the border. Probably their greatest and most valuable achievement. And all done without government help.

Across the Atlantic, we are watching one of the most expensive elections in history – the US Presidential election, $300 million and counting? - and for my part wondering if an election where only billionaires can afford to run for office is in any meaningful sense rule by the people – democracy.

On this side of the Atlantic, the very rigid limits on what candidates can spend, and the equally onerous reporting requirements, leave the door open to candidates of much more modest means.

And that means the arguments count for more here than the candidate's wealth does in the USA.

If our friends – and my many relatives – across the Atlantic vote in their first female president, I for one will rejoice. If politics cannot break with the past, there is no future. Good luck Hilary.

7 June 2016

Counting on the next generation

Nicola Sturgeon has put education at the centre of her program for the new Parliament. Barely anyone sees it differently but that doesn't mean that that shared focus means there is a shared view of the way forward.

Since the SNP came into government in 2007 we have seen the gap between the achievements of pupils in our most deprived areas improve from being 36 percentage points behind our best areas to now being around 20 points behind. Still behind, so still a job to do. But progress made. And a big drop achieved in the number of pupils in our most deprived areas leaving school without any qualifications.

International experts are coming to Scotland shortly. That's good because we should always check whether others have good ideas. The introduction of a baby box for every newborn, which we promised during the election is an example. Well done Finland for showing us the way on that.

And our First Minister has also invited people from all the other political parties in Parliament to join in our mapping a way forward to higher achievement for all and a narrowing of the gap between different areas.

My pal, and previously my boss when I was Transport Minister, John Swinney has been appointed to the Education brief. That's an indication of how committed Nicola Sturgeon is to the education agenda. He is very analytical and very focussed in all that he does. His forensic skills in analysing this policy area and bringing forward new proposals that are rooted in evidence will be the mark of his time in office. That's this man. A top performer.

Personally I was not a well youngster and spent a lot of time off school. But fortunately in a house crammed with books. I read well beyond my years – a history of Scotland at about 5, my first political biography at 7, my father's medical books at 8. And always poetry and some literature.

But above all I was pretty obsessed with numbers and cryptology.

I tripped over the work of a Jewish mathetician, Jakow Trachtenberg, at an early age. Born in Odessa in 1888 he was held in a Nazi concentration camp for an astonishing 7 years – and survived. My local library had to order his book – The Trachtenberg Speed System of Basic Mathematics – specially for me.

To keep himself sane, he spent his time solving mental puzzles and developing techniques for mental arithmetic – without having to be a professor – perhaps today we would say “mental arithmetic for dummies”.

Youngsters, even of quite modest ability, can quickly frighten parents and teachers after learning a few of the Trachtenberg techniques. And with even as little as an hour's study.

I shouldn't claim this as a “magic bullet” for maths education. But it is example of what may be lying out there for us.

Thinking out of the box and into the future.

Stewart Stevenson
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