Why generations of unborn Scots need to have a voice in today's politics – Sarah Davidson
For a century and a half, water has been running through this Victorian structure. The pipe supplied locals during the last six coronations and the moon landings, not to mention January’s Old Firm derby. Leaving aside arguments about the maintenance of our underground infrastructure, an investment by the people of the mid-19th century has subsequently served many generations.
What decisions are we making now that will have repercussions for future generations? Can we lay the groundwork for people to thrive long after we’re gone? At Carnegie UK, we’re always urging decision-makers to look to the long term. But we understand that’s easier said than done when emergency after emergency demands their attention in the here and now.
The good news is that an MSP is now making the case for Scottish legislation that would inject foresight into our public policy and could help rebalance our politics. Sarah Boyack MSP’s proposed Wellbeing and Sustainable Development (Scotland) Bill would create a powerful commissioner to speak up for the people of Scotland who are yet to be born. This move, backed with new powers, would force government and parliamentarians to look beyond the next news cycle or election.
The reason we’re calling for this change is that no one is elected to the Scottish Parliament to represent future generations. The people of tomorrow have no representatives asking questions or laying motions on their behalf, or making sure their case is heard. We think this creates a dangerous accountability gap, leading to short-sighted decision-making.
Given the noise of daily politics, there’s a risk that everyone becomes focussed on the issues of the day at the expense of the legacy that we’ll all leave behind. Bluntly, it is difficult to find the capacity to talk rationally about the distant future when there are queues of ambulances outside our hospitals.
Even the most high-profile commitments can get lost under the pressure of immediate events. For example, in 2021, 162 years after the Glasgow water pipe was laid just a few miles down the road, world leaders gathered at COP26.
At that climate summit, Nicola Sturgeon stated that “the focus in the months and years ahead will be firmly on delivery” against Scotland’s stretching environmental ambitions. But in December last year, the independent Climate Change Committee warned that the Scottish Government “lacks a clear delivery plan and has not offered a coherent explanation for how its policies will achieve Scotland’s bold emissions reduction targets”.
The Scottish Government might reasonably point out that a lot has happened since the then German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then Prime Minister Boris Johnson met in the shadow of dinosaurs at Kelvingrove Museum. But that doesn’t make the case for reducing our carbon emissions any less important or urgent. We need to force the future onto the agenda, otherwise it will always fall off the end.
A permacrisis might sound like a dreadful hairstyle, but this bleak new word was coined in recent years because we’ve not had the easiest time of it. The last 15 years saw a financial crash, austerity, a pandemic, war in Europe, and a cost-of-living squeeze.
The harsh truth is that we might not see any let-up from this sense of permanent emergency. Ministers’ and officials’ inboxes will always be overloaded, and political time will always be in short supply. Social media will go on amplifying the urgent over the important. This is the new normal.
However, we don’t have to look far for an approach which can mitigate these forces and build long-term thinking into our public policy and debate. In 2015, Wales became the first country in the world to legislate in the interests of future generations. A new Act places a legal responsibility on policymakers in Wales to make decisions that improve cultural, social, economic and environmental well-being now and in the future.
Spearheading the work of scrutinising how this works in practice has been Sophie Howe, whose seven-year term as their first Future Generations Commissioner has just ended. Her office ensured that the future-generations approach underpinned Wales’s ten-year national strategy for healthcare, which focuses on preventative measures and a long-term vision of keeping people well, not just treating illness. In 2019, Ms Howe led a national debate about the merits of a new stretch of motorway, leading to a policy rethink. And as the current cost-of-living crisis began to bite, she made the case for a new programme to improve the energy efficiency of homes to prevent history repeating itself.
In a Scottish context, a future generations commissioner might ask ministers to reconsider if their proposals would require us to rob tomorrow’s Peter to pay today’s Paul. He or she could ensure that Holyrood’s climate change rhetoric matches its actions; look at the sustainability of our infrastructure investment; or ask for a plan to deal with our demographic challenge.
This new champion could kick the tyres of public sector plans and strategies, ensuring they’re focused on helping the people of Scotland thrive now and in the future. By creating such a role, we could rebalance our public policy away from the news at six and towards the people of 2126. It will take a collective effort to end the era of firefighting in public policy. We’ve been running on adrenaline and outrage for a long time. That’s why every citizen, politician, and organisation in Scotland that takes the long view must now get behind Sarah Boyack’s Bill.
It is no pipe dream to give future generations a voice in our biggest decisions. The people of Scotland yet unborn don’t deserve to be an afterthought in our public policy and they don't have to be.
Sarah Davidson is chief executive of the Carnegie UK Trust
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