Lesley Riddoch: SNP must show Scottish way of doing things
So the UK government will end the historic anomaly that's let five European states fish our inshore waters. Hooray. It may also scrap the public sector pay freeze and university tuition fees in England.
On a normal weekend that might sound impressive. But there has been no normal weekend for weeks, nor will there be over the usually carefree summer months. Not just because Brexit and an ambiguous General Election have left Britain shaken, but because the aftermath of the horrific Grenfell Tower blaze continues to shock and diminish trust in government. With each passing day evidence accumulates about the cack-handedness of the authorities and kindness of communities. Every day the clarity and righteous anger of survivors cuts through the measured tone of British broadcasting and the fabric of Britain’s polite political consensus.
Yesterday was no exception.
“We are not poor people, we are working-class people. We are leaseholders. We are homeowners. We pay tax. We pay council tax. We make the economy turn while the rich put us in hazardous positions. I’m not going to hold back – we have been neglected from the get-go and we are neglected still.”
The voice of the Grenfell Tower survivor on BBC Radio 4’s The World this Weekend was emphatic and uncompromising. Mehed Egal would neither summarise his post-Grenfell experience in a soundbite nor endure interruption to indulge in the usual ping-pong of radio interviews.
Mehed and his two children have been offered housing – in a high-rise hotel. A prospect that was “petrifying” and “traumatising” to even consider.
“They can’t get a single thing right [exchanging information] between departments. I told him [UK Housing Minister Alok Sharma] if you cannot deal with our situation, just say that. Tell the truth.”
And if the housing solution is outside Kensington and Chelsea?
“It cannot be. This is the community that has given us everything. Boxers, T-shirts, shoes, socks, trainers – everything I’m wearing and everything my kids are wearing. The community helped us when the council tried to refuse compensation – churches, mosques, charities, temples, the people have helped each other. So we must stay here.”
Mehed’s interview raised every hair on the back of my neck – and knocked the flurry of quick fixes announced this weekend into an empty, cocked hat. With every outspoken, clear-eyed interview by a Grenfell Tower survivor, the underlying structural failings of Britain’s marketised, Del Boy society are being laid bare. The double standards and incompetence of the Tory-led Kensington and Chelsea council is a constant drip feed into the news and poses more serious questions about the consequences of cost-cutting capitalism than Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn ever can.
Suddenly the public is linking issues in a powerful way. One tweeter supporting firefighters’ case for a pay rise wrote: “Imagine risking your lives for Grenfell and terror attacks, only for Tory MPs to laugh and cheer at you not getting a pay rise.”
Public tolerance of work-around solutions has finally worn thin and political parties must respond. Suddenly Mr Corbyn’s critique of all past governments including New Labour administrations stands him in very good stead. If there’s an autumn election he is poised to win and that should be a wake-up call for the SNP.
The Scottish Government must act swiftly and strategically. It must demonstrate there’s a distinctive Scottish way of doing things, which consistently aims for fairness within the limitations of devolution and ensures the market is controlled by society, not the other way round. Such a distinctive default does already exist. It’s the reason there’s no public housing in Scotland with Grenfell-style cladding panels. After a tower-block fire in Irvine in 1999, a Commons select committee recommended all cladding on high-rise dwellings should be non-combustible.
That report was taken seriously by Scottish housing authorities and building regulations here were duly amended in 2005. The same recommendation was seen as optional in England, with disastrous consequences. But then Scotland has always taken social housing more seriously. The 1917 Royal Commission report into industrial housing led to the construction of 337,000 houses – two-thirds were built in the public sector in Scotland against one- quarter in England and Wales. That says a lot about the failure of private housing investment in Scotland – it also means social housing is no marginalised “afterthought” here. Similarly, the recommendations of public pay bodies are generally observed in Scotland – though the Scottish Government’s decision to “grant” nurses the recommended 1 per cent rise doesn’t tackle their chronically low pay.
The SNP might also point out that abolishing tuition fees – Labour’s “bold” new manifesto commitment – has been standard practice in Scotland for ten years, saving Scottish students more than £1 billion.
But resting on those laurels isn’t good enough.
For independence to appeal in the long run, Scots must always be closer to social democraticgoals and closer to achieving them in our lifetimes.
So this summer the Scottish Government must come up with more than the good idea of renationalising ScotRail.
What about reforming the ownership of quotas by a tiny number of “slipper skippers” when foreign boats leave inshore waters in two years’ time?
More immediately, why not aim to become the first country in the world to tackle unemployment and automation by trialling a basic income and demand any extra levers needed from Westminster to do that? Why not put a dent in sky-high land prices by giving tenant farmers the right to buy their land with the same game-changing deal Irish farmers got 114 years ago – a state loan with a 60-year repayment period? Let’s see the Scottish Government square up to any legal challenge from landowners as firmly as they did over the tobacco ban and minimum alcohol pricing.
If the Scottish Government aims to resolve, not just manage, the enduring problems caused by inequality and low productivity, let’s see ambitious, long-term plans, not more projects.
There’s no point in the Scottish Government complaining the DUP deal gives Northern Ireland 3000 per cent more per head than Scotland. Never mind the abstract battle for cash – what’s the money actually for?
Scots want a bold plan of action – and as the shockwaves of Grenfell Tower continue to reverberate this summer, there’s never been a better time for a refocused SNP to invite Holyrood’s left-leaning parties to help deliver it.