Brian Wilson: Is 2015 the Year of Real Politics?

Glasgow has the most deprivation and has been badly hit by the council tax freeze. Picture: Robert Perry
Glasgow has the most deprivation and has been badly hit by the council tax freeze. Picture: Robert Perry
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After seven years of no efforts to tackle inequality, will we finally see some action from the SNP, asks Brian Wilson

It was one of these “did he really say that?” moments when David Coburn, who – thanks to the wonders of proportional representation – represents all Scotland in the European Parliament, was holding forth to Rory Bremner.

Coburn was much against the “authoritarianism” of advising people what they should smoke, eat or drink. Bremner pointed to low life expectancy in parts of Glasgow to which the voice of Ukip replied: “Better a short and happy life than a long and dreary one”.

I listened again and he did indeed say it so I suppose we can credit him with frankness. Based on the mad assumption that premature death equates to greater happiness, he really doesn’t give a toss. None of government’s business. Vote Ukip for an early death.

Coburn clearly revelled in his political incorrectness but before we cluck too easily in disapproval, there is also room for reflection. Mr Ukip doesn’t care and says so. But what are those who protest that they care fervently about gross inequality within Scotland actually doing about it?

Earlier this year, the Scottish Government made a great meal out of the fact that the difference in male life expectancy between “parts of Glasgow” and Harrow is 14 years. Harrow ticks all their subliminal boxes – rich, public school and above all English.

Seizing that statistic, Shona Robison – now the health minister – made the bizarre demand that Scots should be paid their pensions earlier, because “we” do not live so long. As I pointed out at the time, the male life expectancy gap between Shettleston and Lenzie (eight miles apart) is exactly the same as between “parts of Glasgow” and Harrow.

This statistic is of no use to the SNP, however, since Lenzie is in Scotland and therefore it is within their power to do something about narrowing that 14-year gap. I challenged Ms Robison to provide a list of actions her government has taken to create greater equality, however incrementally, between areas of advantage and disadvantage within Scotland. Forget Harrow. Answer came there none.

A variation of that question became a staple of the referendum campaign. While seeking to exploit poverty and inequality, could the Nationalists quote one measure from seven years in office which redistributed wealth and opportunity from rich to poor within Scotland? We still await an answer, for no such measure existed.

On the contrary, a range of their key policies and outcomes have been disproportionately at the expense of the least well-off. Everyone recognises that education is critical to breaking the cycle of disadvantage. Yet we have seen the attainment gap between schools in better-off and less well-off areas widening, not narrowing.

Astonishingly, for all the lip service paid to widening access to Scotland’s universities, there are now fewer school-leavers from low-income backgrounds crossing their thresholds than before. And even worse, the key avenue to self-advancement for generations of working-class communities, our FE colleges, have been subject to nothing less than a vendetta, with 130,000 places cut by the SNP.

It is self-evident that people from lower-income backgrounds depend more on the services which local authorities provide – childcare, day centres, school resources and all the rest of it. By definition, the least well-off households have gained little or nothing from the council tax freeze – but they are paying for it every day of their lives through the loss of jobs and services which councils are being forced to cut.

In my view, the SNP have got away with murder over their treatment of local authorities. In real terms, they have lost more than £2 billion as a result of the council tax freeze since 2008, while the compensation paid by the Scottish Government has amounted to less than a quarter of that sum. The worst-treated authority has been Glasgow – also the one with most needs arising from deprivation.

None of these decisions is about an absolute shortage of money. The Scottish Government continues to be extremely well funded. It is all about priorities. And while nobody denies that the Nationalists, by pursuing a centre-right agenda, have kept much of the electorate sweet, it is equally true that there has been no priority given to addressing inequality; in other words, an agenda which would involve a little political courage.

In an astute piece of gesture politics, Nicola Sturgeon announced with great fanfare that she was appointing Sir Harry Burns to the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers. Presumably his advice will be to abandon the council tax freeze, fully compensate local authorities, restore Further Education and give poorly performing schools the means of addressing multiple disadvantage.

Until now, however, the Council of Economic Advisers has been a stooge body which exists for the purpose of giving cover to what the Nationalists want to do anyway. Rather oddly, it does not include a single Scottish-trained economist working in Scotland. According to the Scottish Government’s website, it has not met since March. Its subsidiary – the hallowed Fiscal Commission – tried in vain to provide Alex Salmond with cover from afar.

In short, the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers is a discredited joke. The poor of Scotland do not need a bunch of ennobled grandees and far-flung academics who meet once a year to consider their plight.

Governments which, in the past, have made a real difference to social conditions and inequalities have done so out of conviction and belief. If the current Scottish Government perceives social injustices and wants to do something about them, surely it need not consult a Council of Economic Advisers?

So if 2014 was the Year of the Constitution, is it too much hope that 2015 will be the Year of Real Politics? Instead of arguing about the deeply hypothetical bounties which an independent Scotland might have bestowed (based, let us not forget, on an oil price of $113 a barrel) could we perhaps address the indisputable realities of life as it exists in Scotland today.

We have had enough soundbites about addressing disadvantage. If they are not matched by philosophy, policies and resources, then is David Coburn really the only one who actually doesn’t care all that much?