Nicola Sturgeon leaves office with one in four children in poverty
Nicola Sturgeon was perhaps wise to conduct her valedictory tour as first minister largely in the sanitised environs of the television studios of the country she has spent her adult life trying to separate from rather than in the country she has helped govern for the last 16 years and where she may have found the reception less fawning.
Asked on the daytime programme Loose Women what she was most proud of, she returned to the tried and tested answer of “the baby box”. This, she said, meant that every child born in Scotland “literally has the same start in life”.
This, she proclaimed, was “a beautiful thing”.
And while this may be a wonderful gesture, a symbol of government largesse and a token of intent, what she explicitly implied about every child having an equal start in life was utter bollocks and should have been countered rather than applauded.
Despite 24 years of devolution and 16 years of SNP government, every child in Scotland does not have the same start in life. It is born with deep-seated inequalities baked in, inequalities that begin in utero. Generational issues of poverty, ill-health, alcohol and drug abuse, of prejudice, poor education, and discrimination that, sadly, devolution, regardless of a cardboard box filled with freebies for any newborn, has failed to fully ameliorate or even help partially disguise.
And while having good intentions is laudable, it’s not enough and is hardly the ringing epitaph that any first minister wants etched on their political gravestone.
For regardless of the spin from the outgoing FM’s office, the legacy that her successor will inherit is a grim and onerous one. Putting aside for one moment the big financial scandals still to fully emerge around ferries, the deposit returns scheme, and perhaps even from within her own party, that may all well require the immediate attention of the incoming first minister, it is the glaring inequity of our children that should be of foremost concern.
Back in 2014, in a campaign video for the independence referendum, Sturgeon asked us to imagine a baby – Kirsty – and to think about what kind of country we wanted her to grow up in.
It was a typically Sturgeonesque communiqué – a stylish, evocative message that had its finger on the pulse of a nation teetering on the brink of a big constitutional future. It invited hope along with a positive vision that things could only get better, that our children could live their best lives.
And while independence, by a small margin, did not then become the vehicle to deliver that change, in 2016, having won yet another election, Sturgeon used a newspaper column to pledge: “Let’s all resolve that, when this parliament dissolves five years from now, we’ll be able to say we’ve done everything we can to give all of Scotland’s young people the best possible future.”
Seven years on, with further election wins under her belt, the SNP still in power, and Sturgeon now demitting office, that slogan has been left stuck on pause.
And if further evidence was needed, on the same day that Sturgeon gave her last speech to parliament as first minister, listing her own record of achievements, her government revealed that almost a quarter of all children in Scotland are now living in poverty.
The charity Save the Children Scotland said the figures should be a “wake up call for the new first minister”.
In a wealthy country, poverty is a political choice, and it has deep ramifications for a nation that already has the poorest life expectancy within the UK. On neonatal deaths, childhood obesity, early years development, drug deaths, or any other policy area you wish to measure around health inequalities, the greatest impact will always be felt by the financially worst off.
And regardless of Sturgeon’s over-used boast of eight election wins in eight years, what lies behind those shameful statistics is that, as a country, we have been prepared to reward policy failure with electoral success.
Sturgeon has led a government which has repeatedly talked of its commitment to human rights – the right of a child to food, to a home, to love. It talks up its determination to stand up for the vulnerable and protect the rights of the most marginalised. It prefixes every policy commitment with the word ‘progressive’ as if that in itself would make it so.
And yet in practice, it has actively delayed the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, fought against raising the age of criminal responsibility, came very late to the protection of children from physical punishment, which ultimately was introduced by a then Green MSP, and in the area of care experience, which the first minister has said is her passion, it has, literally, failed to meet the first minister’s 2016 commitment to the care-experienced community that “something has to change”.
The plight of looked-after children has been the focus, in some form or another, of every devolved administration since 1999. Report after report, basically, has come to the same conclusion about the systemic failure of the state to do right by the children brought into its care.
And yet, on any metrics, education, health, justice and even death, children who have been in what can only euphemistically be called ‘care’ will feature heavily at the wrong end of success.
Sturgeon said, in her final speech as FM, that depending on who is elected as her successor, it will either be the second woman to hold that post or the first from an ethnic minority.
That is, she rightly observed, a powerful message to send to any child – that they can aspire to the highest office in this land. And so it is. But so, too, would be keeping The Promise to the children who, optimistically, put their faith in a first minister they dubbed Chief Mammy and waited for change while their childhoods slipped away.