I have rarely been so angry about a news item. Two days after Nicola Sturgeon boasted of her historic election victory, promising a second referendum – “it’s the will of the country”, she said – a report revealed the harrowing truth about Scotland under a nationalist government.
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research – a respected independent research body – said that there are now 51,100 Scots living in extreme poverty. Destitute. Nearly five times the number there were in March 2020.
Destitute evokes of images of Victorian levels of poverty, with families surviving on nothing but foraged scraps of food. It is reminiscent of the Great Depression of the 1930s, where desolate men wandered Britain in search of work, any work, to feed their children.
It says homeless, hungry, dirty for lack of water and soap. It reeks of despair. And 51,100 of our fellow Scots are living in such poverty, defined as a single person with an income of less than £70 a week or a couple with less than £100. Your neighbour could be destitute, the mum at the school gate you say hello to every morning, your son or daughter.
My anger went off the scale on Thursday, when another body, the Legatum Institute, found that Scotland has the poorest performing education sector in the UK. And on the same day, this newspaper revealed that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) consistently downgraded the results of the poorest candidates compared to the richest pupils.
Poverty in Scotland doesn’t just affect your daily life, it damages your future too…
But why am I so frustrated? Poverty is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the postcode lottery of education. I still recall, with a shudder, my weekly supermarket trips in the 1980s, where I prayed I would have enough money in my tattered purse to buy the cheap sausages, mince and tatties that were my family’s staple diet. And Scots long told ourselves that our schools were the best and most egalitarian in the world, when the reality was often so very different.
I am angry because since 1999 Scotland has had one of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world. Our Scottish Parliament and its 129 MSPs (whose basic salary is £64,470 a year) are responsible for every aspect of our daily lives, from health and transport to housing and education.
The Scottish government has power over income tax and some social security and, thanks to the generous Barnett Formula, Scotland receives 30 per cent more UK government funding for public services than England.
Scotland is rich nation. Our parliament is powerful. Yet one in four of our children live in poverty. One million people live in relative poverty after housing costs. And 51,100 of our fellow Scots are destitute.
It would be churlish, partisan even, to lay the blame for this astonishing failure of governance at the door of Holyrood alone. A decade of right-wing austerity, Brexit and now the pandemic has made tackling poverty even more challenging than when it was Blair’s, then Brown’s, defining mission. But the plain truth is that the SNP government, which has now been in power for 14 years, cares more about the constitution than it does about child poverty.
It masks its indifference with eye-catching yet ultimately empty gestures like baby boxes, a gift that costs £9 million a year. Free prescriptions, that most middle class of benefits, cost around £60 million. Or to put it another way, they both add up to £1,350 a year for every person destitute in Scotland today.
But Scots are trapped by their political masters in an endless debate about process. Securing a second referendum, which will rip Scotland apart, is Nicola Sturgeon’s main aim. Constitution, constitution, constitution the Parliament’s mantra.
Progress is not defined by how well our most powerless communities are doing, but by how much power politicians can grab for themselves.
But don’t heed me, I am partisan. I believe we achieve far more by the strength of our common endeavour than we do alone. I think our parliament, that I campaigned for, should be focused on making lives better now, not arguing for more division.
Listen instead to Professor James Mitchell of Edinburgh University. He is one of the most respected academics of his generation. He is an expert on Scotland’s constitution and public policy. He is measured in his analysis, rigorous in his research. Even-handed in his commentary.
Earlier this week he said that the Scottish Parliament – and by extension the Scottish government – had failed to improve lives.
“They are not really addressing poverty with the kind of focus that the language, the rhetoric, would suggest,” he told ITV’s Representing Border.
“I don’t think you can get away with the argument, all the time, that it’s somebody else’s fault – you have it in your gift to do a lot, let’s see if you can get on with it.”
There are 51,100 Scots desperate for Sturgeon and the Scottish Parliament to get on with it. And millions more fed up that their country is being split asunder by politicians encouraging them to take sides in a not-so civil war.
No party has an overall majority in the sixth session of the Scottish parliament. People voted for independence, for the environment, for the union. My 16-year-old grandson voted tactically; my 82-year-old mother voted with her heart. But above all else, people voted for their parliament to make Scotland a better place.
Our MSPs have the resources they need and the power they crave. The next five years will tell us if they have the best interests of the Scottish people at heart, or if they only care about themselves.