Robin McAlpine: We need a reality check

The poorest and most vulnerable in our society are paying too high a price for the lack of empathy inherent in the ruling elite, writes Robin McAlpine

During that stupid stage in my early 20s, when there was often a chance of ending up in some sort of brawl at pub closing time, I got a piece of advice from an older friend. When he was younger he’d been a real fighter. He told me that the best thing that could happen to me was that I got a beating some time soon. “You’re a big guy” he told me “and so you’ll win most of your fights, which means you’ll never learn to walk away.”

His second piece of advice was better still. On asking: “Which ones do I walk away from?” He replied: “As many as you possibly can”.

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He was right. For a big, healthy, cocky young man, a black eye might well have been a valuable lesson. For my elderly neighbour, being attacked and left bruised and bashed would have been a traumatic event.

Losing is a subjective experience – what I may shake off might cut you deeply. Black eyes all round is a policy powerful people would impose on weaker people only if they lacked all empathy.

This came to mind when I read that a cross-party group in Westminster is planning a campaign to encourage more competition in schools – so that children can get “used” to losing. As far as I could see, everyone involved with the campaign is in the richest 5 per cent of the population. I wondered how much they really know about losing.

I suspect that in their crosshairs were kids at inner-city schools in deprived areas; it usually is. But many of these kids will have the equivalent of a PhD in losing long before they leave school. Why do they need rich people imposing more defeat on them “as a lesson”?

Losing at school doesn’t feel so bad when you can head home in your mummy’s SUV to your large, warm house with the prospect of a comfortable career ahead of you. That is the experience of losing which is shared by most senior decision-makers. It’s not their fault, they were just lucky. So, why don’t they behave like they realise they’re lucky? From their perspective, poor people in need of housing benefit must be in a temporary position. And who needs a spare bedroom in temporary accommodation?

Except that reliance on benefits is not a temporary position for many families. Almost three in four Scottish households would see their family income cut by at least 15 per cent if benefits and tax credits were removed. That’s not temporary. One in three Scottish households gets half of the family income from benefits and credits. That’s not marginal.

But as the Reid Foundation’s report recently revealed, the experiences of that 70 per cent of the population are not reflected among decision-makers. Almost none of the paid policymakers earn less than the £24,000 that would put them in that 70 per cent, with the vast majority earning over the £41,000 that puts them in the top 5 per cent. And when they seek advice on their work from “outside”, they overwhelmingly take that advice from other people as wealthy as them.

We all think we understand what it is like to be “other people”; that we have empathy. The evidence is markedly different. I recently put up a shelf. I’m 6ft 2in. My partner is 5ft tall. It didn’t occur to me she couldn’t reach it. I’m not a bad person, I’m a tall person. I don’t hate short people, I’ve just never had to stretch to get something off a shelf.

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In his recent Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture, First Minister Alex Salmond touched on this question of political empathy. He told a story about researchers at Stanford University who discovered that, given the choice of either eating something or freeing another rat from a cage, the majority of rats will choose to sacrifice the food to free a fellow soul.

Unfortunately, if the choice is between keeping tax rates low for upper-income professionals and stealing a child’s bedroom, Westminster’s recent decisions do not stand up well to the nobility shown by our rat friends.

In fact, for 30 years the British state had the choice of making a few rich or making everyone secure. Britain chose the former, and now blames the poor for choices made by the rich.

The fact that we have become the fourth-most unequal society in the developed world is a function of lack of political empathy. Thirty years of economic growth and the elite watched unmoved as 80 per cent of the population made no gain. It wasn’t a banking crisis; it was an empathy crisis. It still is.

I can’t understand how a UK Cabinet of millionaires and very well-paid civil service mandarins could get round a table and think it was fair to force a poor single mother to take one of her children’s bedrooms away and require her to take in a lodger to their family home. It sounds like an utterly disgusting idea to me, something a kind person would never countenance. I guess I must lack empathy.

It’s hard not to conclude that the British elite no longer demonstrates many recognisable signs of empathy outside their own circle. The British state is certainly an institution capable of great callousness. The Sunday Express last weekend had a cartoon describing Great Britain as an “unsavoury pie, 100 per cent moral-free, made with layers of dishonesty, greed, cruelty and buck-passing”. And few of us thought the Express was where the revolution would begin.

People think politicians are the problem, but they at least answer to constituents and many of them are regularly exposed to lives quite unlike their own. The same cannot be said of the army of centralised “experts” on high salaries who advise, influence and enact politicians’ will.

A centralised decision is a decision made without context. Action without context is asking for a failure in empathy. It lets you believe that administration is a science with a “correct” answer and that if your “correct” decision leads to suffering, then the fault must lie with those who suffer.

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So, we shouldn’t be sending senior officials to spend the day with chief executives of multinationals but to spend the week in housing schemes. We need to decentralise decision-making so administrators can see the impact of their decision out of the window, not sanitised into a spreadsheet.

We should tie the experience of the decision-making elite to the experience of ordinary people – imagine how public policy might look if the civil service and politicians had salaries, conditions and pensions linked to the national average. They might start to care about how average Scots were doing. We need much more diversity in who informs public policy.

Scotland has a much better track record on compassionate public policy, but that is relative. Empathy should become a central part of Scottish political debate. I would very much like to hear the First Minister expand on his thoughts on empathy and alienation, and I would very much like the other political leaders to do the same.

People have started to ask what the big political project will be once the referendum is over. Giving a damn might be a start.

• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation