Scotland has a golden opportunity to tackle growing inequality

Written by Katherine Trebeck on 22 January 2018 in Comment

When the economic system allows such an obscene gap between the richest and the poorest in society to develop and worsen, it’s a system that is measuring and valuing the wrong things

Image credit: PA

As political and business elites gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a new report by Oxfam reveals that the period between March 2016 and March 2017 saw the biggest increase in billionaires in history, with one more created every other day.

There are now over 2,000 billionaires sitting on top of huge stashes of wealth. And they’re getting richer. Around the world, billionaires saw their wealth increase by $762bn in just 12 months. This huge increase could have ended global extreme poverty seven times over.

Could have. But it didn’t because the wrong choices were being made by business people and by governments.

Because of these choices, we start 2018 knowing that eighty two percent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half saw no increase in their wealth. Not one penny more, despite growing much of the food on our forks and tying the threads on our trainers.

Closer to home, it’s clear we’re also facing an inequality crisis. Scotland’s political leaders all claim to be alive to the problem and we must give them their due: some of the foundations for a fairer Scotland are being laid: a Poverty and Inequality Commission is now in place and there’s cross-party support for the Living Wage.

Encouragingly, the goal of reducing inequality also sits at the heart of the Scottish Government’s economic strategy and both the Fairer Scotland Action Plan and the Fair Work Convention point towards Scotland’s progressive future. So far, so many nice policies.

But there is much to do.

The Scottish Government has a golden opportunity to build on this momentum now by revisiting its very purpose – what is government there for? Currently, Ministers are consulting on the outcomes which will underpin Scotland’s National Performance Framework. This sets out a vision of the kind of country we want to live in, as well as what the Scottish Government is trying to achieve: the very point of the Scottish Government.

In defining the Government’s purpose, we mustn’t get distracted by those who are evangelical about economic growth. We know that growth is not a silver bullet: indeed, Oxfam’s report today illustrates the consequences of a global economy that blindly pursues growth: yawning inequality and dangerous environmental damage.

Clearly, when the economic system allows such an obscene gap between the richest and the poorest in society to develop and worsen, it’s a system that is measuring and valuing the wrong things.

Instead, Scotland’s political leaders need to focus on what’s really important: wellbeing. Back in October, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made a hugely symbolic announcement: that Scotland would be a founding member of an alliance of nations and regions which aspires to put people and planet first. Becoming a member of this group isn’t about being perfect; it’s about learning, sharing best practice and working together towards a shared goal of creating a fairer, more sustainable world.

Our country may be small but our ideas can be big and they can resonate far beyond our borders. Scotland has the chance to work with others towards a fairer future by demonstrating that it’s possible to make our economies work for everyone and not just the fortunate few.

It’s time for our leaders to recognise what is at stake and give people what they want: a more equal world. We know that people in Scotland want to see inequality reduced: when Oxfam Scotland asked, a whopping three-quarters of people in Scotland favoured wealth being distributed more equally, with two-thirds believing politicians here should do more to address economic inequality.

And what Scots say matters to them is mirrored in what our cousins around the world want. Results of a new global survey commissioned by Oxfam demonstrates a groundswell of global support for action on inequality. Of the 70,000 people surveyed across 10 countries, nearly two-thirds think the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be urgently addressed.

People know that inequality isn’t inevitable. They see it for what it is: a policy choice. And making the right choices seems beyond too many of our leaders, despite their claims to care, and the demands of their citizens.

At Oxfam, we know from our work around the world that unless we close the gap between rich and poor, the goal of eliminating extreme poverty will be missed, and almost half a billion people will still be living on less than $1.90 a day in 2030.

To end the inequality crisis, we must build economies – in Scotland, across the UK and beyond – for ordinary people, not the rich and powerful – human economies. It is what people want and what so many of our leaders – including the First Minister – have rightly championed. Together we can choose to build a more human economy and more equal world for the next generation.

Dr Katherine Trebeck is a senior researcher at Oxfam

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