A Time for Big Ideas for Scotland
Sunday National, February 16th 2020
Big ideas are important. Boris Johnson is talking about infrastructure projects, committing to HS2 and spending £106 billion of taxpayers’ monies. He also this week announced a review into the feasibility of a 20-mile long Scotland-Northern Ireland bridge that will cost £20 billion.
Irrespective of the merits of these projects, and the obvious point that the Scottish-Northern Irish bridge has next to no chance of ever being built, they mark a different kind of politics at least rhetorically from that of Boris Johnson’s immediate Tory predecessors.
These announcements raise big questions about the role of government, public spending and what is deliverable, feasible and believable. One strand which many on the left will understandably want to resist is that Johnson’s government is embarking on an era of raising selective public spending, a more interventionist state and greater role for government, amounting to a different kind of Conservatism compared to recent decades.
This brings up challenges for Scotland. What do we want to be defined by? What do we want to collectively organise and mobilise to do? What do we want to do which brings lasting change and directly transforms lives – beyond the constitutional question and independence?
Scotland has done ambitious things. Take the early decades of post-war Scotland. Government and state mobilised to engage in huge slum clearances in our biggest cities. New towns were built to create attractive, clean environments in the likes of Glenrothes, East Kilbride and Livingston. Public health programmes eradicated diseases such as polio. Comprehensive education expanded opportunity to those previously denied it; and huge hydro-electric schemes were carved out in the Highlands of our country.
Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance observes that: ‘Slum clearance and new towns, public health campaigns, the NHS, comprehensive education, social housing – it was the combined effect of these ‘big things’ that transformed the lives of millions.’
2020 is the 21st anniversary of the Scottish Parliament. It has done many positive things. It has enacted legislation such as free care for the elderly, no tuition fees for students, the smoking ban, minimum pricing for alcohol, and baby boxes.
Twenty-one years on is an appropriate moment of maturity for the Scottish Parliament to reflect and ask whether we have done enough, could we do more – and can we aim higher? I asked a range of public figures, policy experts, academics and campaigners what one big policy they would like to implement to make Scotland a better and more vibrant society.
This could be at any number of levels including the macro-level. We could aim to ‘escape the legacy of the divine rights of kings and the British Empire by remaking the state from the bottom up [with] a confederation of democratic local governments’ in the words of Willie Sullivan of the Electoral Reform Society.
It could see us build on existing commitment such as the ‘incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Scottish Government intends to bring into Scots law in 2021 [and] will, for the first time, set a clear and accountable framework which will require all adults to treat all children with respect for their human dignity’, according to Cathy McCulloch of the Scottish Children’s Parliament.
Even more ambitiously some want Scotland to position itself internationally in a very different place: ‘I want to see Scotland at the forefront of transforming regressive, xenophobic, racist, ecologically destructive, and securitised international policy to form a coalition of small and brave states’ states Katie Gallogy-Swan, a voluntary sector worker.
Others want Scotland to recommit to the values of its public services. Niven Rennie, head of the Violence Reduction Unit observes that ‘most of our multiple areas of deprivation house the one percent of the population that require the greatest level of expenditure by public services – yet we tackle the issues they present in isolation’ and that this has to urgently change.
Dr. Anne Mullin of Govan Health Centre comments that we should ‘Strengthen General Practice services by championing the localised and autonomous practice that is accountable to the population it serves’ and support ‘continuity of care and time to care’ to advance holistic community-orientated health.
The writer James Robertson wishes to see ‘a huge programme of improvement in public transport infrastructure, including reinstatement of key railway lines, proper co-ordination of bus, train and ferry timetables’.
The insecure world of work and the rise of inequality is another theme with Peter Kelly stating: ‘If clean water was essential to improvements in public health, then income adequacy plays the same role for poverty reduction. Having a secure source of income, sufficient unlock thousands of people from poverty, would have a transformational effect on society.’
Alex Bell who worked as a former First Minister’s head of policy states that we need ‘a generational effort to even up society.’ Jim McCormick from Joseph Rowntree Foundation would like to ‘see employers make a commitment to Living Hours as well as Living Wage – to offer at least 16 hours a week to all those who want this.’
Harry Burns, the former Chief Medical Officer observes that ‘the circumstances in which children are born and raised determines how they make decisions and their outcomes in life. Tackling child poverty and supporting families through a Citizen’s Basic Income would transform Scotland.’
Isabella Goldie of Deafblind Scotland makes a similar comment, saying that: ‘The one big thing would definitely be about ensuring that everyone was able to retain their dignity whether they had a disability, a sensory impairment, a mental health problem through giving everyone a universal basic income’.
Joyce McMillan, journalist and theatre critic, says that Scotland should ‘launch a world-leading, job-creating programme for mass home insulation up to Nordic standards, and replacement of all carbon-fuel home heating systems with electric ones, or – where possible – community combined heat and power.’
How we look after the architecture and heritage of our cities, towns and communities is a priority for Niall Murphy of Glasgow City Heritage Trust: ‘My big idea for changing the lives of Scots takes its cue from Patrick Geddes in seeking the renewal of our cities, towns, villages and neighbourhoods via retrofit, repair, re-purposing and enhancement of our existing buildings to reduce their carbon footprint while making them easier to heat and more resilient to climate change.’
A key area is how government and public bodies support people, their relationships and ability to thrive and fulfil their potential. Anne Callaghan of the Campaign to End Loneliness commends the notion of ‘a life coach system for all, that is funded, and which supports people of any age to build confidence, grow social skills and provided a sounding board for concerns and issues. Let’s invest in building people’s confidence and giving them a sounding board to try out ideas before mental health starts to erode.’
Sue Palmer, author of ‘Toxic Childhood’ and founder of Upstart Scotland wants to see the introduction of ‘a Nordic-style kindergarten stage for children aged three to seven, with plenty of time spent outdoors.’ Alan Sinclair, an early years advocate agrees and asks: ‘What infrastructure is most important – roads, houses or people? Parents need support to be better parents and to enjoy their children. That means coaching and support from preconception, during pregnancy, birth and the first two years in life.’
There is a wealth of energy, insights and ideas in modern Scotland but we need some key ingredients to aid their success. First, the dead weight of Westminster has to be acknowledged, but not used as a barrier to our ambition and imagination.
Second, 21 years on, despite a plethora of Scottish Government papers and pronouncements there is no over-arching vision or set of agreed priorities for what Scotland should be working towards.
Robin McAlpine of Common Weal observes that ‘the one thing I’d do is stop believing that Scotland as a nation is only capable of doing one thing at a time. We’re big and rich and diverse. We can reform our banking system and build better housing at the same time. But there is an overwhelming priority just now which is climate change’ – the demands of which he believes should run through every policy and activity.
Third, is the question of capacity, delivery and interface between policy and practice. It is very well having a great policy or idea, but it takes leadership, advocacy, learning and a mixture of pragmatism and stubbornness to implement.
Fourth, ideas need to be nurtured and developed and Scotland has a paucity of resources and spaces where ideas such as the above can be worked out beyond government. Our think-tank environment is paltry, with two offshoots of London operations – Reform Scotland and IPPR Scotland – while the pro-independence Common Weal relies on crowdfunding. Trade unions and voluntary organisations, once key reservoirs of ideas and energy, are now more stretched and over-committed.
This can lead to a phenomenon seen across the West of policy being reduced to media management and soundbites. John Carnochan who set up the Violence Reduction Unit observes: ‘Media and commentators seem now to be viewed as the sole channel to communicate all ideas, policies and progression, they are not. They have forgotten they are not the consumers of services, meanwhile the real consumers are annexed, excluded, isolated.’
Finally, for all the talk of politics as being owned and driven by citizens, party politicians have for the past 21 years tended to draw their ideas and policies from within the system and the senior civil service to the point of exhaustion. This is a challenge for the future, for in an independent Scotland we will need a plurality of voices and resources to enrich public life and aid better public policy.
There is a mindset of policy and change which has to be tackled according to James Mitchell of Edinburgh University: ‘There remains a strong sense amongst much of Scotland’s political class of the ‘lever pulling notion of policy making’ i.e. get elected, pass a law or make a policy statement in Holyrood and all will be well. The other side of this public policy illiteracy is the notion that when things go wrong then it must be the fault of the governing party or some minister.’
The future Scotland is being created in the here and now. Twenty-one years on is an appropriate point to gather our resources, commitment and ideas and focus on the country and future we want to create. Seismic change such as addressing climate change, inter-generational inequality and bringing up children, cannot happen by stealth or accident. It requires committing resources, providing leadership, deciding priorities and having a short term and long view.
The conceits of limit government, taxation as a burden and regulation as a break on economic freedom, have been tried to exhaustion and discredited the world over. It is time for Scotland to think big and dare to chart a course creating a different future.