It’s the surest sign there’s an election on in Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon has become a social democrat again. Addressing her party’s spring conference today, the SNP leader vowed to double the Scottish child payment to £10 per week for under-16s in low-income families if the Nationalists are returned to government after 6 May. She explained:
‘I want to make ending child poverty a driving mission for the next parliament. It is time to end the scandal of child poverty, and this will help us do it. And it is a down payment of what will be possible when we have the full powers over tax and social security that only independence can deliver.’
Ending child poverty is a noble aim. Maybe one day Sturgeon’s party will be able to win power and do something about it. In fact, Sturgeon has been Scottish first minister for six years and was deputy first minister for seven before. That’s slightly longer ago than a meeting with Geoff Aberdein but perhaps this too has slipped her mind. It’s not surprising that she might want to forget: her own government’s statistics say that child poverty is ‘gradually rising’ on her watch.
One in four Scottish children (around 240,000) lives in a household with an income under 60 per cent of the national median, though a Scottish Government statistics bulletin last week noted the figure could be as high as 28 per cent. Seven in ten children living in poverty come from families where one or both parents is in work and less than half live in food-secure households (i.e. those homes where parents don’t worry about food running out or have to skip meals so their children can eat). The statistics cover the period to March 2020, so they can’t be blamed on the pandemic.
Fortunately, Sturgeon still has her favourite bogeyman: Westminster. Specifically, Conservative welfare reform. She has previously claimed the welfare state is being ‘systematically dismantled’ and condemned ‘the UK Government’s punitive welfare changes and welfare cuts’, telling Holyrood that ‘until all the powers over welfare lie in the hands of this government and not in the hands of the government at Westminster, we will continue to do that with one hand tied behind our back’. Then Westminster passed the 2016 Scotland Act, transferring a vast tranche of welfare powers to Holyrood, with May 2021 pencilled in as the point at which the Scottish Government would take full control in these areas.
Alas, it turned out the SNP wasn’t all that eager to get its hand untied and asked Westminster to keep hold of some of these new powers a while longer while Holyrood finished setting up its benefits regime. This demonstrates the advantages of Scottish social security policy: you can’t systematically dismantle a welfare system that hasn’t been assembled yet.
Poverty and inequality are endemic and it seems undeniable that Tory policy, especially during the Cameron-Osborne years and the switch to Universal Credit, is a significant part of the problem. However, this neither exculpates the SNP government nor vindicates Sturgeon’s insinuation that independence would aid the fight against poverty.
During its time in office, the Lib-Lab Scottish Executive, with a Labour government at Westminster but a less powerful parliament, saw child poverty fall from 31 per cent to 24 per cent, where, more than a decade later, it stands today. During those first eight years of devolution, a majority of children in poverty were from households where no one worked. After three terms of the SNP, with a Tory government at Westminster but a more powerful parliament, more than two-thirds of poor children are from households where at least one parent works.
The SNP’s recurring interest in poverty and social exclusion — it recurs roughly every five years — is without acknowledgement of its own record on public finances. It is the SNP government that has overseen more than £900m in cuts to council funding over the past eight years, including reductions in education spending that six in ten teachers say have hurt the poorest children most. It is the SNP government that cut drug and alcohol support funding by more than 53 per cent in Europe’s drug deaths capital. It is the SNP government, through its Sustainable Growth Commission, that is proposing an austerity-financed policy of Scottish independence.
Scottish Labour are a right dull bunch. They were thoroughly uninspiring and sometimes amateur in government. They are due a good wodge of the blame for devolution, which even now they refuse to recognise as a disaster for them, Scottish public policy and the continued existence of the United Kingdom. But nothing has cast such a flattering light on the first eight years of the Scottish Parliament as the last 14. True, Holyrood has never been good, always stuffed with overpromoted councillors and jumped-up apparatchiks, but at least the old lot did things.
Maybe they weren’t equal to the challenges they faced but they got bogged into them all the same. The Lib-Lab executives had their failings yet the contrast between them and their SNP successors underlines just how incompatible social democracy and Scottish nationalism are as worldviews. Scottish Labour worked a seam of unsexy materialism that gave the punters bread but never roses. The nationalists give them nothing but roses. They are so convinced Scotland is superior they forget to get around to making it better.
The child payment bump is in the same vein as the SNP’s pledge over the weekend to give every school pupil in Scotland a laptop or tablet. There is nothing objectionable about it. It may even be a thoroughly good idea. What isn’t clear is why it had to wait until now. Or maybe it is clear. The SNP govern like managerialists all year round but transform into social democrats at the first rattle of a ballot box.