First among unequals
With just short of a week to go before the official independence referendum campaign begins, there is much talk about what happens at this journey’s end. Not how we take the constitutional tools – independent or no’ – and use them to create a better place, but about how we heal the wounds of war.
Alistair Carmichael, the Secretary of State for Scotland, a man who has already called for calm while also raising the prospect of Kermit the Frog becoming the victim of punishment beatings in what he sees as the current febrile clime, is the latest in a long list of respected grandees calling for accord in a post-September Scotland.
The former Secretary of State for International Development, Douglas Alexander, has, as a self-appointed agent of peace, spelt out how a constitutional convention of all the parties could be the vehicle for change and how, magnanimous in their victory, the unionists would invite the SNP, the party of defeat (although still of government) into the big tent to help shape Scotland’s future plans.
And now the newly-installed Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rev John Chalmers, who is dusting down the pews in St Giles’ Cathedral in preparation for the backsides of the politicians leading the Yes and No campaigns to sit down at a national ‘service of reconciliation’ on the Sunday after the vote, has warned that Scots should not engage in a “highly emotive and deeply personalised public rammy”.
But it is all a distraction borne from a falsehood that Scots stand on the precipice of civil war. Of course, the conversation has been heated but to pretend that this will create a schism that after 18 September will require healing is a myth that is in danger of becoming an accepted truth and diverts us from the real debate in the lead-up to that date.
Alistair Darling makes unfounded claims that online smears are orchestrated with the clear implication that the SNP are at the controls and it makes headline news. Unionists claim their offices are under attack by nationalists and it becomes fact even when the evidence is scant. Politicians whine that they have to pull their hoods up in public for fear of recognition and we are meant to take it as read that not only is this true but it’s also because of the referendum. It’s absurd.
But it is also beside the point. The rows and divisions are almost entirely isolated to the internet. Out on the streets, in homes, at public meetings and in bars, people, ordinary people, are talking about the possibilities of change. It is energising, engaging and it is exciting.
And last week when Margaret Curran, the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, made what was billed as a seminal speech on inequality and told us that the SNP had shut down debate on the subject, she was wrong.
I have never heard the issue of inequality discussed as much as I have of late. The referendum has opened up levels of debate that had been dormant for some time. It has given us the opportunity to think anew, regardless of whether independence is the outcome. It has given birth to the Common Weal and given greater expression to the innovative thinking of people, sadly no longer with us, like Ailsa McKay, Jimmy Reid and Campbell Christie. These people, their thinking, their vision – that is what the essence of this journey is about. So debate about inequality is not in short supply.
The problem for Margaret Curran, a woman whose guiding passions I admire, is that it is no badge of honour to claim a lifelong battle against poverty, deprivation and strife when you are still having to fight it.
And the fact is, that in this union, the country’s five richest families are wealthier than the poorest 20 per cent of the population. That’s five families whose combined wealth of £28.2bn is more than that owned by the 12.6 million people who are society’s poorest. I wonder where Scots sit on that scale?
And today in Holyrood we publish, for the first time, research conducted by the local government efficiency agency, the Improvement Service, that starkly reveals the widening chasm of inequality in Scotland that not only exists today but has prevailed for decades and will continue to do so until some radical economic thinking is applied.
It shows that inequality perpetuates inequality. If you are disadvantaged in one area of deprivation then you will be disadvantaged in others; that if you are performing poorly in education then you will also perform poorly in terms of health, wealth and criminality; and if you are living in a vulnerable community, you will probably also account for many more A&E admissions to hospital and be subject to the additional ills of what are dubbed the ‘diseases of despair’ – violence, drugs and alcohol. The report says people with lower income, of lower occupational class, or lower education levels, tend to have a higher risk of incurring health problems and increased lower life expectancy, with health improvements often benefitting those in higher socio-economic classes at a faster rate than those in lower socio-economic classes. Scots, it shows, are still being born to fail.
And if calls for some of the heat to be taken out of this referendum debate, because it suits the purposes of politicians who would rather we focus on the etiquette of political engagement than on the real substance of change, removes any of the passion from the public discourse or dilutes any anger about ongoing and sustained inequalities like those exposed by today’s report, then for me, that will defeat the very reasons we got to this constitutional position in the first place.
We need change, however that is delivered, and ironically, the very politicians who shout loudest for there to be an outbreak of peace and reconciliation immediately after the vote (presumably which will have gone in their favour) are also the ones who, metaphorically, consistently put me up against the wall for criticising their approach and questioning the delay that has allowed these inequalities to persist, even while as part of the Union.