As malnutrition among Scotland's children soars, our SNP and Tory governments put their ideologies before people – Susan Dalgety

Buried amidst the saturation coverage of the Queen’s funeral and speculation about just how right-wing the new Prime Minister Liz Truss really is was a headline that should shame every elected politician the length and breadth of this country.

Malnutrition, a disease of poverty, once blighted much of Scotland and is on the rise again among its children (Picture: Monty Fresco/Getty Images)
Malnutrition, a disease of poverty, once blighted much of Scotland and is on the rise again among its children (Picture: Monty Fresco/Getty Images)

“Thousands of children treated for malnutrition in Scotland,” read the BBC report, revealing that in the last four years, 3,895 children in Greater Glasgow were admitted to hospital for malnutrition. And the numbers almost doubled last year, from 572 to 1,000. In the NHS Lothian area, 928 children were “red flagged” for help over the last four years, and 186 in NHS Tayside.

Malnourished children are not necessarily starving. I have just returned from Malawi, where nearly four out of every ten children are affected by malnutrition. Many of those children will not go to bed at night crying with hunger. Instead they will go to sleep with a belly full of nsima – a maize porridge with very little nutritional value. But their growth will be stunted, making them more likely to drop out of school, and they will never reach their full potential as adults.

Similarly, I would hazard a guess that many of the thousands of malnourished Scottish children are not hungry – instead they will exist on a diet of cheap, processed carbohydrates. And not every malnourished child will end up in hospital, as Dr Lynsey Crawford pointed out.

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Dr Crawford, who was a GP in Glasgow’s Possilpark for 20 years, said the real levels of malnutrition among children are likely to be much higher than even the headlines suggest.

She said: “Malnutrition can be caused by not eating enough, not eating enough of the right foods or not being able to use/assimilate the food you eat because of an underlying medical condition.

“The numbers show only hospitalisations, which may be just the tip of the iceberg. Most malnourished children will be treated in primary care.”

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Losing weight could be sign of malnutrition in older people

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John Dickie’s response went to the heart of the problem. The director of the Scottish Child Poverty Action Group said simply, “no child in 21st century Scotland should be suffering from malnutrition”.

I still shudder when I remember the crumpled black and white image of my father, one of 12 children, standing outside the tiny farm cottage he grew up in with his unsmiling siblings and his gaunt, thirtysomething mother.

“We all look as if we had rickets,” he used to say, urging us to hide the picture. But he grew up in 1930s rural Scotland where poverty was an accepted fact of life, particularly among the Irish immigrant community.

There have been decades of social and economic progress since, so why is it that, in 2022, in this part of one of the world’s biggest economies, thousands of children suffer from malnutrition. And what are we going to do about it, apart from wring our hands?

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The answer lies, I am afraid, with our political leaders, and therein lies the problem. For the last decade and more, Scotland and the UK have been led by politicians driven by personal ambition and obsessed with party ideology.

Neither the Tories in Westminster, nor the SNP in Holyrood, seem motivated by a need to build a better society.

Instead, the new Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss is intent on creating an unregulated cowboy economy, one where enabling unfettered riches for bankers is seen as a major driver of economic growth and social progress.

According to Truss, if a 35-year-old investment analyst in London gets a six-figure bonus every January, then his personal wealth will eventually trickle down to a malnourished three-year-old in Glasgow or Manchester. As if by magic.

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Equally magical is our First Minister’s guiding political principle, whereby Scotland will be immediately transformed into a high-growth, socially progressive country like Denmark, simply by leaving the rest of the UK behind. “It’s the constitution, stupid” is her mantra.

Both are hidebound by ideologies that have been proven time and time again not to work. Right-wing trickle-down economics only benefits a tiny elite, leaving the rest of us dependent on scraps tossed from their Cotswolds weekend retreats or New Town drawing room apartments.

Identity politics – the basis of the SNP’s manifesto since 1934 – is by its very nature divisive. It splits societies in half and tears families and communities apart, hardly the best conditions for sustainable development.

As the late John Hume’s father famously told him, “you can’t eat a flag”, yet in response to the headlines about child malnutrition, SNP minister and man-to-watch Neil Gray said: “Until we get the full powers of independence, we will continue to see Tory polices that will increase poverty…”

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A pox on both their houses. Britain is at its heart a socially cohesive, progressive nation. Our economic instincts are Keynesian – where government invests tax revenues in people, public services and infrastructure – rather than the winner-takes-all approach favoured by free marketeers such as Truss.

As our recent history shows us, from the One Nation conservatism of the 1950s to the New Labour landslide of 1997, Britain prospers when it is led by politicians who genuinely believe in a united country, who govern from the sensible centre of the political landscape, not lob hand-grenades from the fringes simply to delight party zealots.

The SNP government points to their promised independence referendum on 19 October next year as the magic key to prosperity, while the Tories promote fiscal solutions to our economic woes that failed the last time they were unleashed on the British people. Both are false promises.

We deserve better. Not least those children who will go to bed tonight malnourished, their bodies and their future stunted by a political elite who put ambition and ideology before people.

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