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by James Mitchell
24 May 2016
Creating a Scotland where all people are born equal means confronting some harsh truths

Creating a Scotland where all people are born equal means confronting some harsh truths

The American Declaration of Independence proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’. It is wrong.

Life chances are shaped from the moment of conception. Shaped but not determined. The investment in these years pays back over the course of a life in improved life chances and contributions to society. It also reduces the need for significant intervention later.

The Christie report quoted an estimate that 40 per cent of spending was on ‘negative demand’, that is, matters that could have been avoided had early intervention occurred. 

We can never know with certainty the human and financial cost of ignoring problems and that is part of the reason we fail to act. We count what can be counted but ignore what can’t.

That suspiciously round number was an informed guess and is almost certain to have grown as public bodies are forced to respond to increased demands related to demographic change and welfare reform.

The report from the Commission on Widening Access to higher education was right to note that there was no such thing as an intervention that is too early but still focused on ameliorative measures. Reversing years of cumulative failures is far costlier than addressing these problems at the outset. Many of its recommendations may be laudable but are unlikely to have the desired impact. A bolder report would have suggested shifting resources to early years and away from middle-class welfare.

This gets to the nub of the issue confronting us today. It is not the lack of resource that is the problem but how that resource is used. Interests create policies but policies also create interests. Reversing existing policies must confront strong interests that will fight hard to maintain these policies.

Shifting resources in a way that would allow Scotland to declare that all people are created equal will first require Scotland to confront some harsh truths about itself. We like to see ourselves as progressive but if we are to approach the ideal of equal opportunities then we need to be more honest with ourselves.

Professor James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy, Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh

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