LAST week, Nicola Sturgeon made a speech where she said that through a new constitution she would end child poverty in an independent Scotland.
This came after her boss, the First Minister, assured us that such a constitution would guarantee “key economic, social and environmental needs of every citizen”, in particular providing for a “right” to free education and vital social services.
That supposedly intelligent people should seek to convince the public that social provisions can be made a constitutional right is distinctly worrying. They are either trying to sell constitutional snake oil – and know it – or have been imbibing some of it themselves, for what they say is either conscious chicanery or the height of ignorance.
More worrying still is that the First Minister and his deputy appear to have made these promises without serious challenge. That one set of politicians might attempt to hoodwink the nation is never surprising; that their opponents seem to lack the wit or courage to challenge them does not augur well for a future independent Scotland, suggesting we would have a one-party state by default.
The only charitable interpretation can be that Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie are letting Salmond and Sturgeon commit more and more hostages to fortune that can be ridiculed at a later date when the campaign pace is quicker, the temperature higher and the public more interested.
It may also be that they do not wish to be drawn into a debate where to criticise these lofty ideals suggests they are in favour of child poverty or charging for education. Well, I for one cannot let it pass. In considering how a constitution should be drafted – be it for an independent Scotland, the UK or any other nation – it is commonplace to not only describe the institutions and processes under which the people will enjoy their natural liberty, but also to list what rights are inviolate.
These are usually being entitled to due process of the law without fear or favour, whatever one’s nature; having the right to one’s life; expressing one’s opinions through the freedom of speech; holding a religious faith (or none) without fear of persecution; and retaining one’s property.
There are caveats to those rights in as much as their use should not infringe or compromise the rights of others and should be subject to the general and specific laws passed by democratic legislative process while taxation may place a charge on property.
These rights are possible to define because they are part of us as individuals: we have life, it has a physicality that can be categorised by gender, race and sexuality that we wish to protect against persecution or prejudice; and we have opinions and thoughts that we seek to express through our voice, our writing and by associating with others, be it over faith or the widest range of political discourse.
Thus, a constitution can provide protection because it can offer legal redress against or through the state if someone’s life is taken, suffers persecution, is denied their voice or is prevented from associating peacefully with others. No constitution can, however, bestow upon us the right to what we do not have. It cannot give us a right to education for we are all born ignorant and from day one are learning from others and our surroundings at a different and varying rate.
Let me use an analogy. Humans are born with feet so the right to use their feet can be protected, so long as they do not go around kicking other people – but the right to have shoes cannot be bestowed, for the state, even an independent Scotland with 40 years of oil wealth, cannot guarantee it can give each individual a free pair of shoes for life.
Likewise, no state can guarantee that children who are all born equal under the eyes of the law – but may be born into poverty or wealth – can be relieved of their poverty.
What we are witnessing is Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon essentially trying to bribe the electorate with promises they cannot forever keep – and constitutions are meant to be forever.
There is another nonsense to this and that is that there are two forms of poverty: absolute poverty, where someone has no shoes; or relative poverty, where someone has plimsoles and the other has the latest Nike trainers.
Just what was Sturgeon talking about? One would think (and hope) it would be relieving absolute poverty, but child poverty is measured relatively, ie those in households where the income is below 60 per cent of median household income. So the context is that her constitutional commitment would be to ending relative child poverty.
By Sturgeon’s measure, the easiest way to reduce child poverty is not to raise the income levels of the poorest but to reduce the income levels of the rest, thereby bringing down the median and thus removing many households from the poverty category. The children are not better off, they don’t get more food in their bellies – it’s just that the rest are worse off.
In the UK, this is measured by the whole of Britain for which the median household income is higher than that for Scotland alone. Consequently, relative to the rest of the UK, Scotland has a higher-than-average level of child poverty than the rest.
An independent Scotland, on the other hand, would have a lower median level and suddenly, as if by magic, Scotland would have reduced child poverty (even though incomes would not have changed a jot).
The SNP could go even further by introducing tax measures that lower the income levels of all but the poorest and, overnight, child poverty falls even further.
If ending child poverty was put into the constitution, as Sturgeon claims it should be, then such tax measures would be an absolute certainty. If providing free education, free shoes or whatever were put in the constitution, the confiscation of property to deliver such goals would become mandatory.
Such constitutions are the stuff of student politicians who have not grown up. Scotland would, like North Korea or Cuba, be living a lie with a meaningless constitution. For such legal tosh to come from the leader and deputy of the SNP must cause Sir Neil MacCormick, the famed nationalist regius professor of law, to be birlin’ in his grave.