The Scotland of Equality and Fairness: If We Want It We Have To Will It
The Scotsman, July 28th 2012
The Scottish Government announcement on same sex marriage brought forth responses for and against, but one of the most common among supporters was to see it as proof of our progressive characteristics.
‘Well done Scotland showing you are progressive’ and ‘Scotland – compassionate and inclusive’ were just two of many similar comments on the social media site twitter.
This was Scotland as ‘a beacon for progressive opinion’ in Alex Salmond’s words – a tale many of us know well. It makes us feel good, comfortable, and even optimistic about ourselves.
Trouble is this isn’t really true. Scotland is not a more equal and fair country than the rest of the UK. But what if we choose to use this summer of egalitarian hope to commit to a Scotland of equality and fairness across society?
Many Scots, myself included, like to emphasise that the UK is one of the most unequal places in the rich world: the four most unequal.
This is inarguable, but Scotland is not a place of more equality. The difference between the wealthiest 10% and worst-off 10% here is a ratio of 93.4 to 1 compared to England’s 95.8 to 1. Scotland is the most unequal part of the UK outside of London and the North West of England.
The assumption across much of Scottish society is that we are slowly heading, inexorably towards a better, fairer future. That we are moving in the opposite direction to those right-wing privatising English. This is not based on any hard facts other than the gut instinct that we feel a bit different.
If we were advancing towards a more equal Scotland our society and politics would look very different. We would have champions of equality and social justice constantly challenging all of us. They would be addressing the cumulative effect of our public spending choices and asking if we are making the most effective decisions to narrow the gap.
We would look at the complex pattern under the New Labour decade of increased public spending, and note the achievements made on poverty generally and child and pensioner poverty. And we would ask: how sustainable are those gains in tough times, and is that as good as it gets? A Scotland at the end of British Labour’s period in office with 17% of children in families with low incomes and 870,000 Scots living in poverty.
We have to be able to open this debate out and have an honest discussion which does not go down the marketisation and fragmentation route of public services, but is not a blank cheque to defend public service existing practices.
The people who have most gained from the experience of devolution in Scotland have been those with access, influence and voice: the business groups, professional bodies and middle class voters: the insiders of the political system. These groups have managed to preserve their position, their existing benefits and accrue more support because of their influence.
A decade of policy decisions such as free care for the elderly, abolishing tuition fees and more, has had the distributional consequences of not targeting public funds on the most needy, but the most vocal. And still, despite the hard times and collapse of the inter-generational compact which holds society together, we see affluent baby boomers unwilling to give up any benefits, while young people face huge pressures.
A Scotland championing equality would do public services and spending differently. It would stop being complacent and congratulatory about state education. It would stop having one debate in public and another in private about our schools. It would face the shame of our health record and inequalities, and accept that this is about more than poverty and material disadvantage.
We would bring centrestage the generational imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Scots on welfare and address the mix of structural and individual factors which have left people trapped and stigmatised.
The Scotland of Easterhouse, Ferguslie Park and Whitfield is a forgotten one to too many Scots: geographically as well as generationally and socially a land apart most choice to ignore, including politicians and media. Thirty or forty years ago most Scots lived in such places or had families living in council estates, but not any more after council house sales, housing stock transfers and an explosion in owner occupation. Who speaks for and remembers forgotten Scotland and gives it weight versus the insider ways of institutional Scotland?
Scotland knows what it is against. There is much dislike of Westminster punitive welfare reform and the targeting of vulnerable groups including the disabled. But this does not actually say what we are positively for.
One problem is the terms of the debate. The words ‘poverty’ and ‘inequality’ which are used in this debate are abstractions which are far removed from how most people live and describe their lives. People don’t talk about themselves in such sweeping generalisms; instead they talk about ‘people like us’ and ‘how they are getting on’. Thus a whole new language of social justice is needed to make it real and relevant.
Scotland needs a mission and purpose to unite behind whether we are independent or not. This should go with the grain of who we think we are and want to be, focus on social justice, and say that we leave no citizen, child or Scot of any description behind.
Scotland could do this and commit to abolishing child poverty in say twenty years. That after all is what Westminster Labour and Tories are still notionally signed up too, not that you hear much from them now on this.
Such a commitment would be a national purpose: a crusade which allowed us to distance ourselves from the wreckage of Westminster Britain, while facing some uncomfortable truths about the reality of divided Scotland.
We need a unifying, edifying clarion call for 21st century Scotland to animate our national debate beyond the partisan, hollow posturing we have seen so far. Scots want to believe they stand for equality, fairness and social justice. We have it in our power to do so.
An alliance of national and local politicians, churches, business and media could come together. We could develop this in the language of the nationalism with a small ‘n’ of the 1980s of Labour and the SNP and call it ‘A Claim of Right for Social Justice’. Then we could begin to break the pernicious ‘conspiracy of silence’ which doesn’t talk about the division and exclusion which scar this land.