I was at the Poverty Assembly in Glasgow today taking part in a panel debate on constitutional change. A lot of agreement on what’s required to tackle poverty, somewhat less on the constitutional approach required to achieve it!
My central point was that poverty will not be addressed in Scotland unless we make inequality the central dialogue of public policy. Social justice should be about creating a Scotland based on equality and solidarity. This requires properly funded public services and a progressive tax system. Certainly by taxing the wealthiest and cracking down on tax dodging, but also a dialogue with all Scots that social justice costs and it is all our interests to contribute more towards achieving a fairer society. Scandamerica is not only fantasy politics, it’s also fundamentally dishonest.
In response to a range of questions on pensioners, wages, education and personalisation, I found myself having to point out that many of the policy solutions could happen now, with existing powers. What’s missing is the political will. On that basis I remain sceptical that all will be solved with additional powers or independence – we need something more.
If electable politicians are not pursuing these policies then it’s because they don’t believe the public is yet at that point. Yes Scots may be more egalitarian, but not by that much. As one of my colleagues pointed out, in the last social attitudes survey the greatest support for public ownership in the UK is in South-East England. So we need to win broad public support for a fairer Scotland, if we are to use additional powers effectively.
I do have to confess that there is one aspect of the debate that does irritate me. In order to make the case that Britain is broke and the UK will not reform itself, it appears necessary to exaggerate inequality and denigrate everything that past Labour governments have achieved. One delegate told me over coffee that London is the most unequal city in the world and one speaker came very close to making the same point. Sorry, but no it isn’t. Cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Johannesburg and Washington DC have equally wealthy individuals and nothing like our welfare state. We should remember that there is no Office of National Statistics in most developing countries, citizens don’t complete records and the poor frequently die unnoticed.
The last Labour Government did a lot to tackle child and pensioner poverty. Through pension increases, tax credits and much more, pensioner poverty in Scotland fell from 33% to 15%. Child poverty fell from one in three to one in four. I covered more of this in my article in this month’s Scottish Left Review so I will spare everyone a long list.