Brian Wilson: Food banks a taste of things to come

Julie Webster, from the Greater Maryhill Foodbank, encounters Nicola Sturgeon.Picture: HemediaJulie Webster, from the Greater Maryhill Foodbank, encounters Nicola Sturgeon.Picture: Hemedia
Julie Webster, from the Greater Maryhill Foodbank, encounters Nicola Sturgeon.Picture: Hemedia
NINETY PER CENT of Scots are contented in the communities where they live. A modest 7 per cent say they are in poor health and four out of five us are involved in both cultural and physical activities.

This is according to the latest volume of the Scottish Household Survey, compiled by the Scottish Government. It is not, of course, the entire story but it scarcely accords with the image of a dysfunctional society which is in such a distressed and unhappy condition that secession is the urgent priority.

Dig deeper and the challenges are not difficult to define. One in five Scottish adults has no educational qualifications. There are 280,000 people on housing waiting lists and the “poor health” statistic doubles within the 15 per cent of Scotland’s most deprived areas.

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The striking point about all of these deficiencies is that they are capable of being addressed by the Scottish Government under the powers that currently exist. So when assessing the degree of priority that is accorded to them, in deeds rather than words, it is surely more reliable to consult the book rather than the crystal ball (otherwise known as the White Paper).

It becomes deeply unclear why the qualifications issue is best addressed by cutting the numbers in further education by an extraordinary 130,000, the majority of them women. It is equally unclear why halving the annual number of new houses for social rent, to fewer than 4,000 last year, will do much for the folk on waiting lists.

As for health, addressing the long-term consequences of employment and deprivation is a painstaking task which requires sustained political commitment. The absolute certainty is that freezing council tax and giving free things to the better off does absolutely nothing to help those at the lower end of the economic scale.

Now, I complain about none of this, even if I oppose much of it. The SNP was given a clear mandate in 2011 to implement its policies and priorities which are now there for all to see. None of them are remotely redistributive and some work in quite the opposite direction. The best example is education where the university sector is protected “til hell freezes over” while FE colleges have seen numbers slashed and bursaries cut without any attempt at explanation or justification.

What I do complain about is the opportunistic pretence that the campaign for independence is motivated by concern for people with genuine needs which have been largely ignored by our devolved government using its existing powers. The poor deserve more than to be used as props for their photo-opportunities.

This week’s mawkish visit by Nicola Sturgeon to a food bank was a case in point. Presumably the £500,000 she dispensed could have been put to good use many months ago and might have stopped some people going hungry. But what would have been the use of that if there had been no cameras present or a trite sound-bite about independence to be delivered?

In fact, the proliferation of food banks has little or nothing to do with the constitutional debate. They are popping up in many countries, not least Ireland – the shining model we were for so long urged to admire and emulate – where a network of food banks has been established to serve the 600,000 people who are said to be suffering “food poverty”. There’s a European Federation of Food Banks which has been going since 1986.

But even if food banks are relatively new to the UK, the issues they exist to address most certainly are not. I noticed that Ms Sturgeon descended upon the Greater Maryhill Foodbank which, I guess, takes in Ruchill – two miles and several light years removed from Glasgow’s booming west end. Not much redistribution going on there.

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Now 30 years ago, I knew Ruchill quite well through a pioneering project initiated by Glasgow University which made valiant efforts to address the causes of deprivation. One of its achievements, working with local people, was to create a food co-operative which offered cheaper and better food in a place with few shops or choices. Sustained support for that kind of model would still be a lot more productive than exploiting food banks to make a largely irrelevant political point.

Even if one accepts that food banks are the product of recent austerity measures, the assumption that independence would make matters better rather than a great deal worse is entirely unproven. The currency issue is not an abstraction for economists to argue over. It is absolutely critical to every aspect of economic life – jobs, investment, pensions, benefits, the price of food.

It emerged this week that the Bank of England is making contingency plans, in the event of a vote for independence, to prevent a run on the Scottish banks. Say these words slowly and consider the potential implications – “a run on the Scottish banks”. And this is not even a post-independence scenario by which time the fate of the Scottish banks would not be the business of the Bank of England or the UK government. The “deposit flight” would start on 19 September.

Old habits die hard, so the Nationalists’ first instinct was to spin the prospect of “a run on the Scottish banks” into a positive story, which is really quite difficult. Alex Salmond declared the Governor’s comments to be “very helpful” as they proved the prospect of independence was being taken seriously. Some over-zealous SNP spinner for Finance Secretary John Swinney then over-egged Salmond’s pudding via a press release claiming “technical discussions” on a shared currency were taking place. 
This vainglorious rubbish had crossed the line between spin and downright untruth, as the Bank of England quickly pointed out in a blunt rebuttal of the claims made in Swinney’s name. (I am giving the man, personally, the benefit of the doubt here). Meanwhile, Salmond has decided that bluster is the best form of defence. “There is literally nothing,” he thundered, “that anyone can do to stop an independent Scotland using sterling, which is an internationally tradeable currency.”

Absolutely true – and absolutely bonkers. If that is indeed his Plan B, then we can be sure that independence would ensure a boom in food banks with new clients drawn from those who are currently contented in their communities, secure in their jobs and not on housing waiting lists. At least Nicola would be kept busy.