Gerry Hassan: Social justice is about more than buzz words

Anas Sarwar. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Anas Sarwar. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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SOCIAL justice is in the air. There was a speech on Monday by Labour’s deputy Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar, and by the close of the week there was Yes Scotland’s mini-summit and its response to the STUC’s A Just Scotland document.

In between, we have had another litany of familiar grim statistics on the inequality, poverty and exclusion in Glasgow and parts of the West of Scotland, and the well-trodden path of politicians and public sector professionals saying they have learned from the past and embraced new thinking. Part of all this is a ritual dance, mythology and folklore, what people do in Scotland in positions of power and influence to show they are different and care. Part of it is something that makes up genuinely who we are, our collective aspirations for the future, and our difference from Westminster.

Polling expert Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University might argue that there are dangers for all the Scottish parties going down this route, and that Scots are as hardline on welfare as elsewhere in the UK. But this isn’t the whole picture. The idea and vision of social justice seeps through the character and culture of large parts of Scotland; there is, admittedly, a historic gap between how we see ourselves and what government and others do.

Sarwar’s speech emphasised values: community, solidarity, fairness, equality and social justice. It was a decent beginning of a Labour conversation on a subject it hasn’t talked about and championed enough in Scotland in recent times. It rightly pointed out SNP silences on redistribution, yet there was little grasp that the state of modern Scotland is one Labour bears quite a bit of responsibility for – through years of governing at local and national level.

At the same time, academic Arthur Midwinter has produced an interim report for Labour identifying the costs of continuing the council tax freeze and free tuition fees, and calling for better targeting of resources to those in need.

The Yes Scotland paper, published yesterday is a decent, liberal-minded document informed by a belief in a Scotland in which every citizen has rights, responsibilities and opportunities. However, it falls into the “catch-all” problem that the SNP embraces and which has also affected Yes Scotland. It is for universalism, opposes Westminster welfare reform and supports free higher education. But there is no sense that social justice involves hard choices, saying no to existing vested interests and policy preferences, and mobilising new alliances. There is potential in this document, aspiration for a Scotland different from today, but often it glosses over points of substance or difficulty. What sort of welfare state does an independent Scotland aspire to, and what values will inform it? We still don’t know.

There are good things in both of these perspectives and they could form the beginning of a grown-up debate. But they will have to address the most influential analysis in Scotland about inequality, which is centred on an asset-based approach. Government and public agencies, and the current Chief Medical Officer, Harry Burns, have increasingly championed this.

The asset-based approach has its roots in a radical community-based outlook, one that challenges professional interests, but it has become increasingly adopted by those self-same groups. It has become a palliative, about psychology, seeing individuals as the problem and solution, and silent on power dynamics.

Inherent in the asset approach is emphasising the capacity, resources and skills of individuals, rather than deficits and the wider socio-economic environment. This is all fine and well, but in the mantra of the Scottish Government, it has become narrowly focused on welfare while ignoring labour markets and the economy.

It has been silent on a whole host of important areas: rising inequality, the increasing anti-welfare culture, ideology and values, and the role of market fundamentalism in changing assumptions. What it does say a lot about, in the words of Harry Burns, is that “what we have tried to date (although well-meaning) has not worked”. That might be a helpful admission, but in the next breath the Scottish Government talks of “a culture of dependency” – a language and outlook that invokes pathologising and blaming people for the plight they are in – something inherent in the watered-down asset approach. In part, this is about the disappointment of a whole generation of public leaders and professionals that the people have not proven themselves worthy of being “model citizens”.We have been here many times before. Public health expert Lynne Friedli has written persuasively in specialist journals of the inadequacies of this thinking, of seeing it as the latest elite mantra after “social capital” excited a whole pile of professionals a decade ago. That had an extensive evidence base behind it, but the same cannot be said of the asset-based approach.

The limits of the Yes and No campaigns with their catch-all characteristics are obvious. The limits of professional Scotland with their abilities to set budgets, priorities and mood music, and influence and advise politicians, is much more serious and in need of examination.

There is a plethora of measures that Scotland could debate to tackle our real shame: endemic inequality in a land that believes it cares about social justice. We could look at mitigating the bedroom tax and could consider – irrespective of what Westminster does – a Scottish mansion tax, a solidarity levy in this period of crisis that would show our egalitarian credentials. We could look at prioritising early years intervention – rather than just having expert reports; identifying how to do redistribution, and even a citizens’ income.

Most fundamentally, benign paternalism and liberal professionalism – the philosophy that has governed Scotland for decades – cannot go unchallenged. It might not talk and think the language of the free-market vandals south of the Border, but it has contributed significantly to the state of Scotland we currently see, and is part of the problem, not the solution.