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Bah humbug

Bah humbug

With the debate over austerity raging on, poverty in Scotland seems to have reverted to the sorts of scenes described by Charles Dickens.

In fact even he would have been shocked at levels of inequality in modern-day Scotland. At times it appears as though the coalition has actually taken his work as a sort of cheap literary think-tank. 

Dickens probably never meant for his work to be prescriptive, yet the Tories seem one step away from handing out copies of Oliver Twist as policy papers. 

Picture it. Tiny Tim didn’t get a Disability Living Allowance, so neither will you. There have been plenty of promises that Scotland would get a power-house parliament, but is there not something to be said for a work-house parliament? 

Want more from the food bank? Learn to cook. Can’t afford childcare? Just allow your kids to roam the streets in a gang of pick-pocketing street urchins.

To be fair, Labour could also have been accused of miserliness in its pledge to end a ‘something for nothing’ culture, if it had not become apparent that by ‘something’ the party leadership actually meant votes.

Anyway, austerity has driven calls for welfare policy to be devolved, with John Swinney thrust into the role of a kind of bald Oliver, wandering up to Lord Smith and asking for more. 

And this SNP strategy, based on simultaneously creating the plan and criticising it, is a strange one – the equivalent of kicking down a shed as you build it.

A recent debate led by the Scottish Conservatives on Smith’s report is a case in point.

The mood was constructive, a world away from the uproar of FMQs, which at times takes on the atmosphere of two pigeons trapped in a wheelie bin. 

But the danger for the Scottish Conservatives was that by backing the move to leave the majority of welfare powers at Westminster, and therefore open to austerity, the party might seem, well, Scrooge-like.

Ruth Davidson announced: “The proposals unveiled by Lord Smith will create in Scotland one of the most powerful parliaments of its kind anywhere in the world.”

The important part of that sentence is ‘of its kind’. The Scottish Parliament is one of the most powerful parliaments that doesn’t have control over foreign policy, defence, or much of its spending or welfare. It’s one of the most powerful non-sovereign parliaments in the world, which is like being the world’s strongest non-alcoholic beer. Or the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Davidson continued: “The powers will end the tired old grievance politics that have dominated our debates for too long.”

The mood was a world away from the uproar of FMQs, which at times takes on the atmosphere of two pigeons trapped in a wheelie bin. 

However, at this point she was forced to take an intervention, because both Stewart Stevenson and John Mason had tired old grievances they wished to raise.

Stevenson, shifting his eyes from side to side with a look of open cunning, asked Davidson: “Does she assert that we will be more powerful than the provinces of Canada, the states of the United States, the Länder of Germany and the states of Australia?”

Stevenson has petty rivalries all over the globe and was clearly hoping for some ammunition for his annual ‘up-yours’ Christmas message. The Länder of Germany in particular have been pushing him too far recently.

Sadly Davidson didn’t bite. Then, having ended grievance politics once and for all, she decided to air some of her own. 

“Alex Salmond accused us of shameless behaviour. The new First Minister stood in the chamber to decry it as disappointing. Then we had the pathetic spectacle of three elected SNP councillors setting fire to the document outside their council chambers.”

To be fair, the burning was pathetic. They couldn’t even get the lighters lit.

Davidson continued: “I back a cap on the amount any one family can claim in welfare. The SNP says it wants to lift that cap. I believe it should not be possible to claim more in benefits than the average family earns through work.”

Of course if cutting spending was popular, there probably would not have been calls for the powers to be devolved to Scotland in the first place. Capping spending on benefits is one of the things Westminster has proved best at.

Scottish Labour has a leader again and it was perhaps the prospect of Jim Murphy’s takeover that pushed Drew Smith to present himself as the living embodiment of the party. In fact he has even taken to referring to himself as Labour in the third person: “When the full scope of the Smith agreement is implemented, our Parliament will be one of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world. Labour likes that.”

Murphy secured the leadership soon after, presenting himself as the Ghost of New Labour Past, Present and Still to Come all at once. 

Actually, having visited 100 towns in 100 days in his one-man referendum campaign, Murphy is really much more effective than the Ghost of Christmas Past – which mainly just loafed around Scrooge’s house a bit. Such is the difference between a striver and a shirker.

But maybe this controversy should have been expected. As Patrick Harvie put it: “I am shocked. It seems some people look at the report of the Smith Commission and see a promise overdelivered, while others say the promise has been broken. Who could have guessed?”

Who indeed. But eventually the members ran out of time, though the debate will continue over the winter break and beyond.

All that was left was for Willie Rennie to pop up and announce with his trademark grin, “Merry Christmas, everyone.” 

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