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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Social Justice Scotland

I was speaking at 'Changin Scotland' Scotland this weekend. An excellent weekend of politics and ideas in a relaxed non-partisan context. Superb scenery and weather helps! This was the Independence Weekend and my contribution was on social justice, in a Scotland under extended devolution or independence.

Ask people to define social justice and you’re going to get many different definitions based on their political, religious or social perspective. Of course others will tell you it’s a fairytale unachievable in any form of society. i would argue it is about creating a Scotland, that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognises the dignity of every human being. And lets not get too parochial – it should also drive our approach to international issues. The Constitution of the International Labour Organisation affirms that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice”. There is also global justice movement based on human rights and developing in important spheres such as climate change.

Social justice has broad political support, even the UK Government has a social justice strategy, hard to imagine after this week’s budget, but it’s called ‘Social Justice – Transforming Lives’. Scottish Labour and the SNP would both argue it is central to their purpose and it is a pillar of Green Party thinking.

It also has a strong base in civil society. It was a part of Catholic social teaching, the Protestants' Social Gospel long before John Rawls secular concept of social justice with his liberties (thought, conscience, political, association and liberty of the individual) and in the work of many of Scotland’s NGOs. I would also point to socialist tradition of thinkers, such as Richard Tawney, George Orwell, and, later on, Richard Titmuss, who all argued against the class division and selfishness of acquisitive market societies. And to be fair to the Liberals (not many have cause to at present) the Beveridge Report that aimed to slay the ‘five giants’: want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness.

We should remember that it was a Scot, John Smith who moved Labour off common ownership and onto social justice with his Commission. And today we even have Ian Duncan-Smith’s Centre for Social Justice.

However broad, support for social justice is not universal. Market theorists like Hayek dismiss the very idea of social justice as meaningless, he said “Social justice does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense”.

Even if you accept the concept there is a further debate as to who should be responsible for making sure we have a socially just society. Should you legislate for social justice or merely rely on the moral compass of society’s members? For those of us on the centre-left we might accept that the state has a role here through progressive taxation, income redistribution and even property redistribution to create equality of opportunity.

To highlight the individual response lets consider a sensitive issue in Scotland, devolved or independent, such as consideration of reproductive rights, including the right to abortion and access to contraception. A social justice issue or just a matter of private choice? I would argue that individual choice fails to acknowledge the ways in which racism and economic disparities limit the choices of many women – but others even on the centre left might disagree.

Having introduced the concept lets move on to the practice.

Both relative poverty and economic inequality have risen over the past 13 years in the UK. That deprivation has increased even more among minorities, and  second and even third-generation immigrants remain among most deprived. The poverty rate for minority ethnic groups stood at 40%, twice the 20% found amongst white people.

I would give credit to the Labour decade when poverty fell (faster in Scotland) even though the New Labour mantra was relaxed about inequality. Peter Mandelson being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” – although I see he has recently been having second thoughts. Pensioner and child poverty in particular was tackled, although less progress on poverty for those in work. Yes, the minimum wage was a huge step forward but Labour leaders have never really accepted the economics of wages as recently articulated by Stewart Lansley and others. Poverty is again on the increase and the long term reduction in the value of wages is an important factor. And lets not forget pay inequality with the gender pay gap at 9% for FTE and 19% for part time workers.

What are the tools that Scotland, devolved or independent might deploy to strengthen social justice.

Material inequality requires income redistribution. Largely a function of the tax system. An independent Scotland would have greater control of these levers but would there be the political will to use them? Apart from the modest ‘Penny for Scotland’ no serious proposal let alone use has been made of the 3p power. Arguably because it only applies to the basic rate, but will the 10p power in the Scotland Bill be used? Labour is wary of being labelled as “tax and spend” and the SNP appear wedded to a low tax model in its Celtic Tiger approach to Corporation Tax and the regressive Council Tax freeze.

There has been some progress with the Scottish Living Wage, in the public sector at least, although less in using procurement to drive it through into the private and voluntary sector.

As Wilkinson & Pickett (Spirit Level) have highlighted inequality is about more than income. It requires action on education, health, criminal justice and just about every aspect of social policy. Most of these are already devolved yet arguably we have been better at producing glossy strategies than solid action. Early years, skills, child poverty, health inequalities etc all have such strategies and they all look very similar to those adopted by the previous administration.

Preventative spending illustrates this well. Just about everyone accepts the logic – Finance Committee, Christie Commission, but the doing is much more challenging. Targeting resources on the bottom 10% as Christie recommended makes sense even to the right wing given the impact on public expenditure. Christie estimated 40% public spending in Scotland goes on failure demand. But again difficult in practice.

Lets look at some key areas identified in the Spirit Level were tackling inequality matters. Physical & mental health, education, criminal justice, social cohesion etc. Their evidence shows that more equal societies do better on all of these factors.

So how are we doing in Scotland?

In Scotland the gap between the top and bottom in key outcomes such as income, employment, health, learning and safety is much wider in Scotland than in other European countries. Worse still, most of these negatives are intergenerational and often clustered in small areas. There have been improvements since devolution but, on most key dimensions, inequalities have remained unchanged or become more pronounced.

There are some positives. Healthy life expectancy and household income have, in general, improved as have some learning outcomes, and the overall risk of being a victim of crime. However, income inequality has widened since devolution Because the richest 30% have got richer and the bottom 30% have remained static.

In education, the gap between the bottom 20 per cent and the average in learning outcomes has not changed at all since devolution. The gap in healthy life expectancy between the 20 per cent most deprived and the 20 per cent least deprived areas has increased from 8 to 13.5 years. 32 per cent of adults in the most deprived areas in Scotland report a long-standing illness, disability or health problem compared to 14 per cent in the least deprived areas.

Half of all young people in Scottish prisons have been in care. This rises to 80 per cent when looking only at those convicted of violent offences. This is despite just one per cent of all Scottish children having been in care. Of course we lock up more people than in most European countries and politicians compete to be tougher on crime. The link between deprivation and the likelihood of being a victim of crime has also become stronger.

These are largely ‘hard’ issues, but what about the softer ones? Carol Craig in her book “Tears that made the Clyde” highlights that even after taking account of deprivation, Glasgow’s indicators are worse than comparable cities like Liverpool and Manchester.

Take family breakdown. Over 46 per cent of families with dependent children in Glasgow are lone parent. That's one of the highest figures in the world.  90% of them include the mother, not the father, that's a lot of men detached from family life. 48% compared to 30% in England and Wales are single or never married.

Carol raises other issues like Scotland’s relationship with alcohol, a culture of violence and consumerism -  but the importance of committed relationships, love and tenderness should not be overlooked.

Most of these issues are devolved already. Yes there are important macro economic levers. Yes, DWP powers over benefits and jobs are necessary to create joined up strategies. But essentially we have many of the necessary levers – but do we have the political will?

So let’s start the debate from the sort of Scotland we want and I would argue that that is a Scotland rooted in social justice with a real commitment to tackle inequality. Then look at what type of constitutional change can assist. But we also have to commit to using new powers. As Christie report said “This country is a paradoxical tapestry of rich resources, inventive humanity, gross inequalities, and persistent levels of poor health and deprivation”. 

I believe that extended devolution or independence could bring important levers to help address these issues. But the question I left my audience with is “Will greater devolution or independence change any of the issues I have covered today?” I suspect most of my audience believed it could - but the jury is still out on the issue of political will.


  1. Fab insightful post Dave. Thanks.

  2. I enjoyed the weekend and your contribution. It made me think that there is more to the constitutional issue than the process. We need to think about what independence is for.

  3. Thanks for your blog, i will wait such blogs in future marcus white lisdoonvarna