I was reading recently about inequalities of life expectancy within our society, by which I mean Scotland. The context was my son’s modern studies Higher and this was one of the topics he was revising.
A striking statistic which had obviously stuck in his mind was that men in the Shettleston area of Glasgow have a life expectancy of 68, while their counterparts in Lenzie, eight miles away, can expect to be on this earth for 82 years.
So every schoolboy knows about life expectancy as a symptom of massive inequalities within Scotland which cry out to be addressed. We do not need to look beyond our borders. Poverty lives cheek by jowl with plenty, all within our own small nation, our own cities, our own towns. Eight miles and 14 years of life apart.
That should be a central challenge for any Scottish Government worthy of the name, using the many levers at their disposal. It goes to the root of questions about whether finite resources are being used to attack such inequalities – which, patently, they are not – or to sustain and indeed widen them.
But then fast-forward to this week’s ludicrous proposal from Shona Robison, on behalf of the SNP administration, that Scottish pensioners should be paid earlier than English ones because “we” die younger.
The geographic comparison which Ms Robison selected was not between Shettleston and Lenzie. Instead, it was between “some areas of Glasgow” and Harrow, which is a posh-sounding place in the south of England; a place for which, unlike Shettleston and Lenzie, Ms Robison and the Scottish Government have absolutely no responsibility.
And therein lies the kernel of why Nationalism is such an unpleasant and deceptive creed. To recognise the inequalities within Scotland involves both challenge and responsibility. In contrast, pretending that the difference which matters is between the poorest places in Scotland and the richest places in England is a grotesque caricature, intended to encourage prejudice and gross misunderstanding. And also, of course, to evade responsibility.
The weird demand for pension-age differentials comes out of the same political dung-heap. Are rich Scots to benefit from this distinction along with poor ones? Is a factory worker in Liverpool to qualify for her pension later than Ann Gloag or the Weirs? Or is it all just ill-considered rubbish designed, like so much else, to drive wedges and resentments on the basis of identity?
It seems almost beyond belief that some hapless Scottish Government civil servant has been given the warped task of establishing that “pensioners in Harrow” will receive £50,000 more than “some Scottish pensioners” in the full knowledge that other pensioners in Scotland will have exactly the same advantage of longevity over their counterparts in Manchester or, indeed, Shettleston. This is the madness that Nationalism fosters.
Let me issue a little challenge to Ms Robison. Forget Harrow. Instead, can she provide a list of actions which the current Scottish Government has taken to close the life expectancy gap, however incrementally, between Shettleston and Lenzie, and all the similar contrasts within Scotland itself? What outcomes can they point to after seven years in charge of the critical levers of power, including health and education?
Is the cutting of 130,000 places in further education colleges designed to close the gap in educational attainment – a key determinant of life expectancy? Were the disproportionate cuts in council budgets, and particularly Glasgow’s, conceived of as a means of reducing disadvantage? What radical initiatives have been promoted to prioritise schools which battle against the worst socio-economic indicators?
Please tell us, Ms Robison. Can you point to some catalogue of actions by the Scottish Government that have redistributed wealth from die-old rich Scots to the die-young poor, using the existing powers at their disposal? Or is the truth that any movement has been in the other direction? Inciting us to envy the wealth of Harrow’s pensioners is scarcely an adequate alibi.
There is something peculiarly unpleasant about the political exploitation of other people’s economic circumstances while doing nothing to address them, other than obsess about the constitution. This is also reflected in a poster produced by the oh-so-positive Yes campaign, which depicts an unkempt child under the heading, “Let’s become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty”.
Apart from anything else, the image insults all those Scottish families who, whatever their economic circumstances, would never dream of sending their children to school in the condition that some whizz Edinburgh advertising agency believes to epitomise “poverty”. Just as pernicious is the implication that the only way to address Scottish society’s ills is by breaking up Britain, without a shred of objective evidence to support that.
The Scottish Government has all the data it needs about the inequalities that exist within our own boundaries. The recently retired Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns has devoted his professional career to spelling out in great detail the source of these inequalities and the measures needed to address them.
That is the agenda which cries out to be followed if we are serious about reducing inequality rather than the pursuit of populist policies or the scapegoating of external forces.
Yesterday, I had the honour of speaking at the funeral of the great broadcaster Derek Cooper, who campaigned long and hard on diet-related issues relating directly to public health and life expectancy. Professor Tim Lang, of City University in London, was there and recalled chairing an inquiry for the previous Holyrood administration into the Scottish Diet Action Plan, working closely with Harry Burns, who “held up a mirror to Scotland, pointing to these divergencies”.
When the Nationalists came to power, they ditched Prof Lang’s report and its recommendations, probably on the grounds that they had not initiated it. That is the kind of experience which tells a very different story about the priority accorded to the whole public health agenda by the Scottish Government, in contrast to this week’s attempt to exploit it for crude political ends.
So the short, simple question remains. Why did they use Harrow as their reference point rather than Lenzie or any other prosperous Scottish community, of which there are many?
But please ask it in a whisper, in case it encourages them to rewrite the modern studies text books.