There were extraordinary scenes in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon. First of all, the Scottish Liberal Democrats didn't even vote for their amendment, and nor did anyone else. They didn't have to, because the Scottish Government had taken a big step to doing what they wanted.
For months, Willie Rennie has got up at virtually every First Minister's Questions session and doggedly asked, pleaded, cajoled with Salmond to extend nursery places to 40% of 2 year olds from its current figure of 3%, just like Nick Clegg had done south of the Border. And every time, Alex Salmond replied with varying degrees of condescension, disdain and aggression.
Today, though, all that was forgotten as the Government announced not just an extension of nursery places for 15% of 2 year olds from this August, rising to 27% the year after. It's not as far as Willie Rennie might have wanted him to go - he wanted a match of 40% - but when you factor in that they're giving free school meals for the first 3 years of school from January 2015, it's something we can be very satisfied with.
It's an astute move by Salmond. The SNP were being damaged for failing to make any moves on childcare, saying that they could only act after independence. It made sense for them to show that they could deliver something with the powers that they already had.
Willie had to rewrite his speech for the debate virtually on his feet. He got the tone absolutely right, generous spirited and positive. He spoke of what it would mean for children:
The main issue that we are discussing today is poverty. If we are going to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, we can make an effort to do something for people at later stages, such as work on youth unemployment, or we can try to improve people’s life chances through working with schools, but the best impact that we can make is on people at the age of two. I am therefore pleased that the First Minister has listened. We have not quite achieved the 20 per cent entitlement that I wanted, but I do not want to be too begrudging about it. It is a step in the right direction and children will welcome it.I have to say that none of this stuff would be happening if Nick Clegg had not taken the step that he did last autumn, because the Scottish Government was not moving very fast on free school meals up to that point. However, as I am trying to be generous today, I do not want labour that point.What is at the centre of the decision is that it proves that this Parliament can deliver on poverty. It proves that devolution can work, which has not been the script from the SNP in recent weeks and certainly not post the white paper. The SNP said that none of this would be possible without independence but today’s announcements have shown that we can deliver things that can change people’s lives—that can tackle poverty—using the powers that this Parliament has. I hope that the SNP does not try to use the barrier of independence again on significant policies such as this in order to try to win votes in the referendum, because it would be a retrograde step if the SNP were to do so.I welcome today’s announcement; I think that it is a step in the right direction. I will be pressing the First Minister to go further. I know that he wants to go further and I think that it is important to go further, but it is a welcome step on free school meals and on nursery education. I think that children across the country today will be welcoming this step. When they look back in 20 years’ time, they will be glad that they had the chance of nursery education at an early stage because it might just change their life chances—it might remove them from poverty and it might make Scotland a better place.
That last bit was the most important, followed by his comments that this showed that devolution could deliver great results.
It's quite a good birthday present for Nick Clegg to know that two policies that he has personally championed are being introduced north of the border as well.
Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael added his delight at the turnaround and pointed out that this was possible because of money being made available from Westminster through the Barnett Formula:
I welcome any measure which helps children in Scotland and I am glad to see the Scottish Government focusing on its day job for once.Today's announcements have been made possible by extra funding from Westminster through the Barnett formula, a great example of the combined strength of the UK and the flexibility of devolution. Additional resources of around £300 million have been provided to Scotland.I am pleased that the Scottish Government has, for once, acted to put the needs of the people of Scotland before their need to make political points to support the flagging case for independence.The Scottish Government White Paper was a wish-list without a price list, typified by the commitment on childcare which they claimed could only be delivered in an independent Scotland. It ignored the fact the Scottish Government already has the power to set childcare policy now.The claim there were no resources to improve childcare and that only independence could deliver this was simply misleading.This additional support for childcare fits perfectly with what we are trying to do moving people into work and out of poverty and is a prime example of how when Westminster and the Scottish Government work together, Scotland gets the best of both worlds.
For months, SNP MSPs had jeered every time Willie Rennie asked about nursery for 2 year olds. Today they cheered as the announcement was made. A good day all round.