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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.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

2019 - the big challenges ahead

Happy New Year! Traditionally a time to think ahead and a good time to consider the big challenges facing Scotland and the wider world.

At present, Brexit dominates the policy discourse and, within Scotland at least, the constitutional implications for devolution or another independence referendum. Important though these issues may be, they are, in military parlance, grand tactical issues. We also need to think about the strategic challenges facing Scotland over the next ten to twenty years.

I was reading Nicholas Timmins biography of the welfare state; ‘The Five Giants’, which captures the mood of the post-war period and Beveridge’s five giant evils – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. You can easily make the case that these evils still abound in Scotland and the rest of the UK. However, it got me thinking about what those ‘giants’ might be today.

For me, there is one overwhelming evil – inequality. One million people in Scotland live in poverty, including 230,000 children and 140,000 pensioners. If you are disabled or a member of a minority ethnic group, you are significantly more likely to be in poverty. Poverty is not just a condition, it is a matter of life and death. Healthy life expectancy can vary by as much as 28 years between the most and least deprived areas of our country. 

Almost all political parties accept that poverty is a bad thing. The difference is when you discuss not just poverty, but inequality. Scotland’s richest 1% have more wealth than the bottom 50% put together. As Rebecca McQuillan points out in today’s Scotsman, it’s the same worldwide. We have an economic system that is designed to make the wealthy few richer, at the expense of the many. 

The Tories argue that you can address poverty without worrying about inequality. I have noticed a concerted right-wing effort to challenge the seminal work on this issue, ‘The Spirit Level’, which explains why more equal societies do better on almost every measure. Despite all the evidence, trickle-down economics is still championed by some. 

At the recent Living Wage awards, an SNP minister quoted The Spirit Level favourably, so this should point to a consensus on the direction of travel. The problem is that the SNP government has been unwilling the take the necessary radical action.  There has been plenty of processes, but policy measures have generally been timid. Being better than England is not enough.

My second modern giant would be climate change. The latest UN report says we have twelve years to simply limit a climate change catastrophe, by keeping the increase in global warming below 1.5C. As today’s Scottish Environment Link report shows, our diverse fauna and flora, as well as wildlife, are also at risk, with consequences for food and pollination. As with other challenges the international response has been too timid and Scotland could do more - including the Climate Change Bill currently going through Parliament.

My third modern giant would be disempowerment. The UK is over-centralised and London sucks in too much power and resource. While devolution has been an important step forward, too many powers stop at Holyrood and others are taken from local government. Economic power continues to be grabbed by big corporations, largely unchecked by regulation or industrial democracy. Devolving power must be accompanied by new forms of deliberative democracy, which give citizens a real say in how our society is run. Strengthening collective bargaining could have a similar impact in the workplace.

My fourth modern giant would be a broken society. Too much emphasis is placed on economic performance and too little on the impact on human beings and the communities of place and interest they live in. Much has been written about the economic impact of an ageing population, without considering the opportunities. Automation at work is used to exploit the workforce rather than liberate them. Isolation, intolerance and our consumer culture are contributing to a broken society, where we patch and mend the mental health consequences, rather than tackle the root causes. We need to focus on creating a good society.

The policy challenge with these modern evils is that governments tend to work in departmental silos. I know from my own work experience how difficult it is to agree, let alone deliver, solutions that cut across departmental boundaries. For example, health inequality has little to do with a health department that is focused on managing the NHS. It requires cross-cutting action on housing, social security, employment and the environment. Even the four modern giants I have suggested above, cut across each other in so many ways. 

Chasing solutions without fully understanding the causes of the problems that face our society is a process doomed to failure. So, in 2019, let’s try and raise our vision beyond the immediate challenges and look at the long-term measures needed to create a more equal Scotland and work with others for a better world.

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