The crusade against child poverty is being sidelined in favour of constitutional self-indulgence, warns DONALD MACLEOD
It’s November, the SNP party-conference is over, soon it will be September and any day now we should hear someone roll out the arguments for a Yes-vote vote in the forthcoming referendum.
The burden of proof lies on the apostles of negativity, who consistently disparage the last three hundred years of Scottish history as if the Union had prevented all progress and sapped us of all self-respect. Listening to them you would never believe that during these years we have successfully negotiated the industrial revolution, produced such world-class writers as Robert Burns and Walter Scott, nurtured cutting-edge scientists like Alexander Fleming, John Logie Baird and James Clerk Maxwell, and reared outstanding athletes such as Kenny Dalglish and Sir Chris Hoy.
Nor would you ever believe that since 1707 we have provided the UK with (at a quick count) seven Prime Ministers (and that’s before we count such other bearers of Scottish genes as W. E. Gladstone and Harold MacMillan); or that we have benefited from such social revolutions as free schooling, the Old Age Pension, universal franchise and the National Health Service.
Nor do separatists ever seem to notice that from the day of the Union Scotland has had its independent legal system, its independent kirk and its independent system of education; or that since devolution we have had control over health, police, housing and the environment; as well as a voice on all the matters still reserved to the Westminster Parliament, even when these are no concern of ours but impact the lives of only the South British.
It is against this background of a successful Union that the case for a Yes-vote has to be presented, and so far that case has been downright peculiar. In essence it’s been, “Nothing will change. We will still have the Queen, the pound, the EU, NATO and even the BBC.”
That’s good to know. But, then, what’s the point? Why argue for the partition of Britain on the ground that, actually, everything will stay the same: no separate Scottish Head of State, no separate Scottish currency, no independence from Europe and no independence from NATO?
But no one even has the right to make such promises. The very point of an independent Scotland is that at any moment in the future it can decide to dispense with the Queen, the pound, NATO and the EU. It can pass its own draconian laws on press regulation and, even more likely, declare the Wee Frees an illegal organisation (once it’s worked out who they are).
The assurance that nothing will change does not, however, quite exhaust the Yes-vote argument. The SNP are fighting the campaign on their record, which means that the question they think they are really putting to the electorate is, Are you happy with the last six years of Nationalist government?
And, of course, we are very happy indeed with some bits of it. We love free prescriptions, free university tuition and free personal care for the elderly; and we love the freezing of the Council Tax, even though it means that councils can no longer afford to collect our bins every week.
But then, all these glorious achievements were accomplished under the Union, and we may well suspect that none of the goodies would have come our way had a referendum not been in the offing.
Free prescriptions do not, however, a government make. While independence will not mean the creation of a new nation, it will certainly mean the creation of a new state; and this new state must hit the ground running, complete with a coherent fiscal policy, a detailed foreign policy and a properly costed defence policy.
On these matters the SNP have no record, and the electorate can form no judgement. Yet on the stroke of a certain midnight the safety of the Scottish people will hinge on an army, navy and air-force which Mr Salmond would very much prefer not to think about. The one thing we can be sure of is that we’ll have no Trident missiles: a cowardly and selfish policy which involves no risk. We can sit securely under a nuclear shield provided by others.
Independence is a mega-project. The trouble is, it is not accompanied by a mega-vision. What kind of Scotland lies beyond a Yes-vote?
The great blot on our nation is child poverty: children who sleep in cold, damp houses; children who go to school without a breakfast; children of whom teachers have low expectations because their parents, in the language of George Osborne, have adopted unemployment as a life-style; children who can have no social life because their parents can’t afford the clothes and the gadgets which are essential accessories; children whose parents could never pay for a school-trip; children for whom talk of equal opportunities is meaningless because their post-code denies them a meaningful job or because no one from their home (or their school) has ever even dreamed of going to university; children who are worn-out caring for a sick relative or an alcoholic parent.
These are our national disgrace, and we have no reason to believe that independence will put us in any better position to eradicate it. Indeed, the eradication of child poverty is not even part of our national Mission Statement. Instead, independence has become the great diversion, absorbing our intellectual and political energies while thousands of children are condemned to stunted lives. The re-drawing of boundaries, whether of local or national government, will bring no deliverance.
Partition, creating a North Britain and a South Britain, is a policy dreamed-up by theorists disconnected from reality. We live on the same rock, speak the same language, share the same history and have learned to live with our differences. We are not victims of a cruel, repressive alien regime or, like Cyprus, consumed with ancient hatreds and unforgotten wrongs.
But we are blighted by child poverty and we shall never eradicate it till we abandon our obsession with constitutional trifles and focus instead on making sure that our children not only have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but actually enjoy that right as a living reality.
The mega-vision, then? A post-referendum Scotland organised as one all-inclusive Child Poverty Action Group.
Professor Macleod is a Labour Party member, the son of a Lewis crofter and recently retired after 30 years as Professor of Theology at the Free Church College. This post was originally published on his blog and in the West Highland Free Press.