Are we really a nation of equality and fairness?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, May 24th 2015

Scotland is one of the hot subjects of the moment.

This is true even in places that usually ignore us – such as Westminster. One take from the centre-left Compass pressure group is that Scotland is the progressive future they would like to see across the UK. Another from disgruntled Labourites wants to get even with the SNP for taking so many parliamentary colleagues from them.

It feels good to be talked about. But actually these voices aren’t really interested in Scotland. Instead, they are talking about themselves, and their sense of bewilderment and loss, confusion over England, and anxiety about Labour and the left’s future prospects.

The British Election Survey this week highlighted data from late last year which showed that in that crucial swing group of voters, Labour to SNP, 75% believed the SNP had policies to redistribute from rich to poor, while only 48% thought the same of Labour.

This electoral battleground is the familiar centre-left terrain of Labour and SNP competing for the same voters and political agenda. But how much of it is real and how much is both of them going through the motions and telling Scottish voters what they want to hear?

Scotland has now had sixteen years of devolution: eight under Labour and the Lib Dems and eight under the SNP. That is a substantive enough period of time to be able to make an assessment and identify trends.

One is fairly obvious, but seldom commented upon, that under both Labour and the Lib Dems, and then the SNP, no serious redistribution has taken place from those who are affluent to those most in need. Instead, there has been a conspicuous narrative about ‘social justice’ and ‘fairness’ which has disguised the consequences and details of policy.

This week Education Secretary Angela Constance addressed some of the failures of Scottish state education, how it is letting so many kids down, and the challenge of improving literacy and numeracy. This is welcome and long overdue, but how did the main teachers’ unions such as the EIS and SSTA react? In predictable manner, they condemned Constance for, in as many words, talking Scottish education down.

Scotland could do with a breath of honesty across numerous areas. In higher education it would be good to talk about the realities for students underneath the mantra of ‘no tuition fees’. Scotland’s students start paying back monies at a lower threshold than in England, the system is more regressive, and with 70% of students borrowing the full amount each year of £5,750 (or £6,750 for mature students) it doesn’t leave them debt free but with £23-27,000 to pay back.

In further education there has been the massive cutbacks in college places which have taken 130,000 opportunities away from mostly working class young people, and which is just swept under the carpet because the college sector doesn’t have the political clout and status of the university sector.

Similarly the council tax freeze, now in its eighth year, is having all sorts of harmful consequences. Firstly, by its nature the freeze is a benefit to more affluent voters and those who live in bigger houses. Secondly, its continuation is making a mockery of the very words ‘local government’, while year on year, cuts hit deeper into essential services and the very fabric of our communities.

The real state of Scotland is a complex one beyond the soundbites and clichés of much of political discourse. The Scottish Government does many worthwhile things such as its campaign and stance on a living wage, but we could do with the gap between words and action being addressed, rather than just overblown rhetoric from all our political parties.

Inequality in Scotland occurs for many reasons. It is not as some claim all the fault of wicked Westminster, the Tories or the union. Nor as others in Labour might argue are all Scotland’s limitations the fault of the perfidious SNP; there are fundamental restraints such as Westminster’s continued cutting of the Scottish Block Grant that would hamper the most noble aspirations.

Scotland isn’t a land of equality and fairness at the moment. It isn’t even a country defined by social democracy, but instead by Labour and SNP swapping blows about who can out talk the other and voters choosing the SNP account of this.

If we aspire to be a land that redistributes income and power, which looks after bright working class kids, and spreads equality of opportunity, then we collectively have to decide this is what we want to do, and put our time, effort and resources into taking power and monies away from those who already have lots and giving to the have nots. That is, into the Scotland that people say they want to live in – or are we just kidding ourselves?