THEY are calling it the “perfect storm”. It is a desperate human crisis we normally associate with developing countries – yet it is happening in our midst. Yesterday, two reports on poverty revealed the tragic reality of Scotland’s poor.
The Scotland’s Outlook campaign, which brings together all the major charity organisations, estimates that more than 870,000 people – a fifth of the population – are now living in poverty as a combined result of welfare changes, stagnant wages, inflation and persistent job insecurity.
Another report indicates this poverty is only too real: the number of Scots resorting to charitable food banks in order to find a square meal has soared by more than 40,000 in a year. That is 40,000 hungry souls (including children) in a nation that claims to have a GDP per capita among the richest 20 economies on the planet.
Yes, we can take comfort in the fact the British economy is growing faster than practically every other industrial country. Yes, we can take comfort in the fact that Scotland has the highest employment rate among the four UK nations. Yes, we can agree that gross welfare spending has to be contained if the UK is to put its finances on a sustainable track. And yes, we can agree that reducing the disincentives to find work is the best way to eliminate poverty in the long-term.
But unless we temper economic reality with social compassion, we risk undermining social cohesion. Unless we take pity on the thousands of Scottish children now being fed from food banks, what is the point of promoting economic growth? For surely economic growth is not an end in itself. In the Vietnam War, the myth goes that they had to destroy the village to save it. In similar vein, we cannot excuse food banks in the name of progress.
But how do we combine economic hard-headedness with social compassion? The Scotland’s Outlook campaign makes some good suggestions, including reducing the financial cost of childcare so that parents can afford to seek paid employment. Free school meals would cost the taxpayer only a modest amount but it could be worth the price if it reduced dependence on food banks and gave parents the dignity and confidence to re-enter the labour market. What is required is joined-up thinking that links welfare reform to economic reform.
There can be no doubt that the poor have been hardest hit and will suffer for longer. Adam Smith, the first theoretician of capitalism, wrote: “The poor man … is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow-feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers.”
Smith’s point was that only if society has genuine empathy for its poor will those poor feel the confidence to work and contribute to the community. That still holds true today.
Suspect reasons to reinstate Brown
IT HAS not been the most successful of seasons for Scotland’s rugby team, and it has had its surprises along the way.
Chief among those was the decision to remove the team captain, Kelly Brown, after just 56 minutes of the first match of this season’s RBS Six Nations championship, and then drop him from the squad altogether.
A captain by his nature is a leader to whom peers look to for inspiration, and in crisis, for guidance. It sends out a confusing message if his stripes are removed when the battle has barely begun.
Brown could perhaps be considered fortunate to have missed the following match against England at Murrayfield, a wretched affair that plunged Scottish rugby into despair once more. Despite a pitiful performance from the team that day, there was still no place for Brown in the side to face Italy in the next match. Lo and behold, Scotland enjoyed a rare victory without him.
So what, then, are we to make of Brown’s sudden recall to the team, and reinstatement as captain, for the match against France at Murrayfield on Saturday? Scott Johnson, the national team’s interim coach, reckons “the pitch suits Kelly”. This will be the same pitch that is so riddled with parasites that it is not fit to host club matches; the same pitch that clearly didn’t suit Brown for the England match. As compliments go, this one appears to be of the back-handed variety.
We wish Scotland and Kelly Brown the best of luck at the weekend but can’t help wondering if this game of hokey-cokey was necessary. Pride can drive a man on to great achievements, but it can also be damaged. Coach Johnson should take care of his charges, who are only on loan un-til his own replacement arrives.