Does Scottish independence matter more than lives blighted by child poverty? – Susan Dalgety

There is a set of government statistics that I have quoted several times on these pages, but they require repeating.

Independence supporters march through Glasgow, but is the focus on constitutional matters letting down children living in poverty? (Picture: John Devlin)
Independence supporters march through Glasgow, but is the focus on constitutional matters letting down children living in poverty? (Picture: John Devlin)

Almost one in four of Scotland’s children live in poverty. The Resolution Foundation says the child poverty rate will rise to 29 per cent by 2023, and Scottish Government statisticians fear that it will reach 38 per cent by the end of this decade.

By 2030, in one of the richest countries in the world, more than one-third of children will be classed as poor, with all the life challenges poverty brings: low educational attainment, badly paid work or long spells of unemployment, chronic ill-health, premature death.

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When a health disaster strikes, people living in poverty are always the worst hit. Evidence from the National Records of Scotland shows people living in Scotland’s poorest areas are twice as likely to die from Covid-19.

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And people working in the hospitality industry, and other low-paid, insecure jobs, are the ones who have to shoulder the burden of the Scottish Government’s ill-conceived attempt to stem the virus’s second wave.

The civil servants who write the policy papers that affect Scotland’s poorest communities have not lost a penny of their income since the pandemic, nor will they, as the winter months descend. Scotland’s bar staff, waiters and hotel workers – the backbone of our economy – do not know when they will next receive a full salary, or even if they will have a job in three weeks’ time.

As the nights draw in, hundreds of thousands of Scots, young and old, face an uncertain winter, prisoners of a low-wage economy, lacking hope. It all seemed so different 20 years ago.

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the death of Donald Dewar, the first First Minister of the devolution era, a giant of a man who was able to combine his love of Scotland with his commitment to the United Kingdom. A political heavyweight who understood that poverty blighted all our lives, and that a nation could never be truly free if much of its population was trapped in penury.

Perhaps his most famous speech was the one he gave at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in July 1999. In considerably fewer words than this column, he promised that the parliament would strive “to do right by the people of Scotland; to respect their priorities; to better their lot; and to contribute to the common weal”.

And he was confident that over the coming years, the members of the Scottish Parliament would “work together for a future built on the first principles of social justice”.

Two decades later and those principles of social justice lie in tatters as the endless ding-dong of constitutional politics dominate our civic life. In Scotland 2020, there is only one political question: Yes or No.

We may have the highest drug-death rate in Europe, one of the lowest life expectancies, and the highest suicide rate in the UK, but flags dominate our national discourse.

Instead of using Holyrood’s considerable powers to “contribute to the common weal”, the ruling party tears itself apart over a sex scandal and a possible cover-up, fiddling while Scotland sinks ever deeper into despair.

And Scotland’s once-proud civil society, which could organise a national campaign at the drop of government minister’s order paper, is now nothing more than a cheerleading squad for the Scottish Government. There is something rotten in the state of Scotland, as another former First Minister recently hinted.

On Thursday, Jack McConnell gave the inaugural Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Stevenson Trust in Glasgow University, Dewar’s alma mater.

McConnell, who led Scotland for six years until 2007 and the arrival of Alex Salmond, called for the rejuvenation of Scotland’s democracy to “renew the original dynamism and transparency of Holyrood”, and a new focus on social justice. He echoed Dewar’s speech in the House of Commons in the 1978 budget debate when he urged “unity in the attack on poverty and injustice in society”.

“Pride and partisan politics should be set aside,” said McConnell, calling for the UK and Scottish governments to “come together in a concerted effort to take the radical economic and social measures that will see child poverty reduced in Scotland again”.

Sadly, his considered speech, informed by decades of public service, is unlikely to make much of an impact in today’s fevered climate. The First Minister is absorbed with trying to stop two natural disasters overwhelming her, coronavirus and Alex Salmond.

It suits her longer-term political objective not to work too closely with Boris Johnson’s Government, even though thousands of Scots are dependent on the Chancellor to feed their children.

And leaving the UK is the Scottish Government’s number one priority – not education, not the economy, not even social justice. For the SNP, the Scottish Parliament is a means to an end, not the means to end poverty or build a world-class education system.

I was very lucky to be in the gallery when Donald Dewar gave his memorable speech, all the more powerful for its pithiness. I worked for Jack McConnell when he was First Minister and remain a good friend of his today. I first joined the Labour Party in 1980, and I believe that Scotland’s best future lies in the United Kingdom.

So everything I have written here is – to the cynic’s eye – nothing more than a puff piece for Scottish Labour and Britain. Except it’s not.

The measure of any nation is not how powerful its politicians are, but how it cares for its children.

In today’s Scotland, nearly a quarter of a million children live in poverty. In ten years’ time, unless urgent action is taken, that number is expected to increase by more than half again.

Surely, not even the most fervent nationalist can believe that Holyrood under the SNP is doing “right by the people of Scotland”. Or do our children matter less than the Saltire?

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