When will the SNP tackle Scotland’s shaming poverty?
The Guardian, by Kevin McKenna
The first sparks of social awareness to pierce my comfortable world came early and were delivered in the classrooms of the west of Scotland Catholic primary schools I attended. The social spectrum of the children in these classes was narrow. It ranged from the children of aspirational, working-class families to those whose households were experiencing real poverty and who were struggling to conceal the effects of social challenges raging in their own homes. None of us, though, would ever encounter anything remotely like the problems being encountered by millions of children in Africa.
We knew this because in many Catholic primary schools there existed something that came to be known as the “black baby” fund. Thus, before the day’s lessons, we were all encouraged to hand over whatever pennies we could spare. These little almsgivings were entered on a card marked with 20 boxes, each representing one penny, which would be ticked off until full. On completion, you were given the honour of naming a baby. There were subsequent reports, unverified, of an emerging African professional class in the 90s bearing a disproportionate number of Irish names such as Veronica and Brendan.
The funds raised would help to equip schools in Africa and purchase uniforms and books for pupils. Our teachers rarely missed an opportunity to tell us why this was necessary. These children were starving and disease-ridden because of wars and famine caused by the greed of rich, western democracies.
Last week, I learned about the Back to School Uniform Bank network in Scotland. The aim of this initiative is to provide free school shoes, ties and blazers among other essentials for primary and secondary pupils from disadvantaged communities. The project was launched by the influential Women for Independence group and two years on, as demand has continued to grow, a co-ordinated effort is under way to collect donations.
Edinburgh School Uniform Bank received more than 100 offers after issuing an appeal last weekend. According to a report in the National, which carried the story on its front page: “Participants will be given the age and gender of a child in need and asked to shop for items specified by group organisers. However, the identities of the youngsters involved – referred by food banks, social workers and other third parties – will remain anonymous.”
Conservative and reactionary forces will dismiss the existence of a project such as this with the same disdain that they reserve for the existence of food banks. “If you give something away for free then of course you will find a market for it,” they will point out. And there have been no wars or famines leading to the bloated, naked bellies of needy children.
Yet what did we really think was happening underneath the national statistics that annually disrupt the delusion that we live in an enlightened, progressive and caring society? More than 250,000 Scottish children live in relative poverty. Last year, a record number of food parcels were handed out to users of food banks in Scotland. In Glasgow’s “corridor of death”, a seven-mile stretch from west to east, male life expectancy drops by more than 20 years.
The UK Conservative government’s one-sided austerity programme has reduced benefits to the sick and elderly in the most disadvantaged areas, while homeowners in traditionally Tory parts of south-east England are treated to an array of cash emoluments, including inheritance tax cuts. So why are we surprised that, a generation after we were asked to provide books and uniforms to starving African children, we are now being asked to reach out in the same way to poor Scottish children?
The SNP government is trying hard to promote fairness and equality. Look, here’s a £20m investment package for projects promoting equality and ending discrimination and there is a £5m project for organisations combating prejudice on grounds of age, disability, gender, gender identity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. And here, too, is a plan to help young disabled people access a £5m fund to help them to live more independent lives. Holyrood also wants to stop prisoners smoking in cells and to do away with urinals in Scotland’s schools, to promote a gender-neutral philosophy. It has also flagged up a plan to “reform government”, which could more accurately be described as a mild recalibration. This will include, ahem, new climate initiatives.
The government at Holyrood needs to get serious, not embellish its CVs for a future in the lobbying industry
These are all sideshows, cosy and risk-averse accoutrements deployed to help the SNP to remain in power for as long as it can. The initiatives are what you would expect of a centrist government with a good heart but which doesn’t want to get its hands dirty. They do not remotely suggest one that is serious about addressing the root causes of deprivation in our poorest neighbourhoods. Scotland has been governed by parties purporting to be left wing for almost 20 years. Yet, during that time, the same inequalities remain as deeply embedded in the same communities.
Nothing significant has changed because no post-devolution administration has been willing to undertake profound and radical action. None has been able to look beyond the next four or five years and re-election. Scotland’s deepest and most abiding problems are generational and demand action that may not bear results for 10 or 20 years. The government at Holyrood needs to get serious, not embellish its CVs for a future in the lobbying industry.
Meanwhile, in Scotland’s poorest areas, where life expectancy is low, the Tories’ decision to raise the state pension age is yet another blow.
The SNP have an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy from their generation in power. I’d encourage them to commit to a poverty commission involving all parties and agencies tasked with tackling deprivation in our poorest communities. This should be a long and painstaking event. And they must commit to acting on its findings. And if they still want to insist on their No Fags for Lags idea or gender-neutral lavatories, then fine. But let’s address the big stuff first.