We can't play politics with poverty when so many are going without

At first glance, a national mission to end poverty in Scotland is worthy of unequivocal support.

Around 19% of Scots are living in poverty, according to the latest research, with the figure now the same level as that recorded in 2007.

Ahead of a debate in the Scottish Parliament today, new Social Justice Secretary Shona Robinson issued the rallying cry. The pandemic, she said, had "thrown into sharp relief the hardships faced by many in this country," but also showed we could make change happen at pace and scale.

New urgency is undoubtedly welcome. When the SNP came to power in 2007 around 1m people, or 19% of Scotland s population, were living in relative poverty. After a dip to 18% in the middle of the last decade the number rose back to 19% in figures released in March 2021.

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It should be no source of comfort that levels of poverty in Scotland are lower than those in England in Wales, and only a little worse than those in Northern Ireland. The levels of deprivation in parts of Scotland would be a stain on the reputation of any prosperous nation.

Moreover, we should expect the official statistics to worsen, with so many of the least well-off in society losing paid work during the pandemic.

All of which makes the detail of Ms Robinson's call for action, and the political response to it, the more depressing. As ever, the unsightly grimace of Scottish politics' constitutional faultline was not far from the surface: Ms Robison's cry was for political unity - but also for new powers devolved to Holyrood to help tackle the problem.

Opposition parties were quick to point to powers they say could have been deployed long ago. Why insist on new powers, they say, when so many lie unused?

Others may, rightly, point out the state reaction to the coronavirus pandemic was born, not of political unity to fight a universally-accepted wrong, but near unilateral emergency action to cope with a deadly pandemic. The vital difference was purpose, not unity.

Politicians will, inevitably, play politics. But constitutional push-and-shove will do nothing to help the poorest Scots. And as this bruised nation attempts to get back on its feet, it may come to judge harshly those politicians - of whatever hue - playing rhetorical or constitutional games with so vital an issue.

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