Do we really want a Socially Just Scotland?
The Scotsman, February 25th 2012
We all like to think that one of the most proud Scottish traditions is our commitment to social justice, caring about and acting to aid those in disadvantage and poverty.
If the ongoing debate about Scotland’s constitutional status is to be meaningful and relevant beyond the political classes, one powerful argument is that it should put at its centre the promotion of social justice.
Poverty fell over the Labour decade of growth; from 1998-99 to 2008-9 Scots poverty rates fell by more than in the rest of the UK. There were larger falls in pensioner and child poverty than amongst working age adults; in 2008-9 17% of people in Scotland were living in relative poverty.
This was a decent Scottish story of progress; part of a wider British advance. We now know that poverty levels are increasing and can guess that the next decade will see rising poverty and hardship in Scotland and the UK.
The political framework of devolved Scotland has seen a flurry of activities and initiatives on these issues. There have been a host of SNP Government papers with good ambitions, ‘Achieving Our Potential’, ‘Equally Well’ and the ‘Early Years Framework’.
However, much of the Scottish debate across the political spectrum tends to get stuck on the fact that areas such as employment rights and welfare are reserved. There is also a sense that the emphasis on more powers to the Parliament stops all the political parties and civil servants addressing what they could creatively do with the existing powers at hand.
The ‘Tackling Poverty Board’ report of the Scottish Government and COSLA brought together a wealth of expertise and identified a range of devolved areas where action could have a significant impact.
These included driving down the cost of fuel, action on childcare, bringing anti-poverty initiatives into school education, and developing an adult skills agenda which more successfully targets those with the least skills.
Part of this strategy is implicitly critical of some of our public agencies: Scottish Enterprise and its emphasis on inward investment and big projects and Skills Development Scotland which seems to have focused on skills in groups which produce the most tangible results. The Scottish Government has answered these suggestions by abolishing the board.
The Scottish Child Poverty Strategy was published last year and focused almost entirely on how local authorities could deliver it through the Scottish Government-COSLA concordat. It seemed to have little awareness of how deep councils commitment was to this or their know-how and expertise.
If we are to progress in the area of social justice we have to recognise the limits of what we are doing from government to public bodies and other agencies. Prominent policies such as the Scottish social wage and the medium term freezing of the council tax do not actually help the poorest in our land; one is universalist and not targeted, the other is deeply regressive.
As important, we seem as a society to have forgotten how to have an ethical and moral debate about what is good, sustainable, rewarding employment or how to address and express our views on employment rights. How do we speak up on employment abuses and exploitation? What is our sense of a generation of young people being offered nothing but unpaid internships, or UK Government backed schemes which offer work placements for nothing more than Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)?
Where is the Scottish debate, beyond attracting big name companies such as Amazon north of the border, and emphasising inward investment and tax competition? What is our opinion on Workfare and a Scottish response to private providers and contractors?
Where are the champions in Scotland who will speak for this agenda? The SNP have done many good things, but there is a sense as times get hard that they lack the commitment to redouble efforts in these areas. Perhaps a factor here is the absence of all but one or two government ministers who represent urban, blighted Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon being the notable exception.
Labour who made progress on this in the early years of devolution haven’t said anything of worth on this in the entirety of their period of opposition. As times get tougher, they seem content to take the low road and hector and point the finger which doesn’t really help anyone.
Local government is isolated and facing cuts, while the voluntary sector has put forward a muted agenda wary of making waves with government. The record of public bodies is patchy to poor, but even worse has been the record of Scotland’s business organisations such as CBI Scotland and SCDI who seem to be completely silent about the plight of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.
How we make things different involves people speaking up, championing this and seeing how Scotland could be a very different and more flourishing land.
It is all fine, as many do, to invoke the Nordic model and see Norway, Sweden and Denmark as more cohesive societies with lower levels of poverty. However, these countries have succeeded by building up and nurturing decades of intricate networks of collaboration bringing together different sides, labour, business and other sectors, and recognising tensions and conflicts and how to manage them.
Fundamentally, we have to ask, does Scotland want to be different? Does it seriously want to shift from the narrative of difference to the potential of difference?
If it does many will judge it on how we treat our most vulnerable and disadvantaged, those we pay lip service to, but who are mostly part of the forgotten Scotland.
This represents a massive challenge to politicians, policy makers and Scottish public life from public bodies to the voluntary sector and business. Yet it also offers a huge opportunity, for whoever politically or institutionally can begin to talk convincingly and champion this agenda could shape much of our debate over the next few decades.
What have we to lose in this? Such an approach would come from the best of Scottish progressive, compassionate traditions, and could mobilise large parts of society in a shared national project. It would require leadership, vision and direction, it would necessitate that much of institutional Scotland put down its special pleading for its own interests, but it offers the chance of making the debate about Scotland’s future real.
Isn’t that what we all want: to harness the energies of our society to tackle the barriers and constraints which prevent so many of our citizens living full, rich and rewarding lives? Why can’t we make the next two years about what would be the best ways to advance the cause of social justice Scotland?