One of the more gruesome recent images conjured up by Scottish politics features Douglas Ross and Nicola Sturgeon descending upon a “working class community” to engage in a popularity contest, the fancy cars safely parked around the corner.
“Maybe Douglas Ross would like to come with me and I’ll introduce him to some working class communities across the country,” cried the Mother Theresa of Dreghorn. “Name the time and place,” responded the Moray Linesman, who at least knows what it’s like to make tough decisions in front of an angry mob.
“I’ll go with Nicola Sturgeon to one of the working class communities devastated by the drug death crisis that has spiralled out of control on her watch.” That’s a good idea but it would be much better if either of them did it separately, without publicity, in order to learn about life’s realities rather than display their dubious workerist credentials.
I am reminded of an embarrassing BBC Scotland series several decades ago called Lilybank when a distinguished sociologist embedded herself incognito within a “working class community” in an early example of reality TV – or, as the residents saw it when they found what she was up to, a patronising piece of social anthropology.
Before the lines of engagement are set for the Sturgeon-Ross royal visit, the term “working class community” will need to be defined. I suspect that what both combatants really mean is “where the poor people live” which is by no means synonymous with “working-class community”. One can imagine the battle of spin doctors to pin down a venue.
Ms Sturgeon will prefer a street with lots of Saltires in windows, occupied by people who think Janey Godley represents the height of sophisticated wit. A fair sprinkling of Universal Benefit claimants who have had their 20 quid taken off them will be essential. And definitely avoid anywhere close to a library or community centre, closed down due to council underfunding.
For Mr Ross’s team, they will have to make up their minds. Either they’ll want a ghetto of drug-addled poverty which Ms Sturgeon would then be required to tip-toe through. Or more sensibly, they will prefer an aspirational place where most of the working-class have long since decided that it would be a good idea to buy their council houses. Society has moved on since “communities” could be glibly classified and one result has been to further marginalise those who have been left behind by these movements.
In the interests of good taste, I can only hope that, like most things Ms Sturgeon announces, this event will never actually happen. Indeed, I have an alternative proposal. Both of them should remain in their natural habitats and not trouble the residents of some unfortunate corner of Scotland with a self-aggrandising media circus.
Instead, they should agree to an open-ended debate at Holyrood on Child Poverty in Scotland. For once, the Parliament should sit at an hour in the morning which the working-classes would recognise for clocking-on rather than the usual two in the afternoon. And it should continue for as long as necessary to agree on urgent measures to address the shameful realities of Scotland’s poorest 20 per cent.
The prayer to open proceedings should concentrate on themes of penitence and humility. The text for the day will be: “For even as you do unto the least of my children, so you do unto Me”. Then the session should move on to consider the latest Rowntree Foundation Scotland report on Child Poverty which couldn’t be blunter.
“Without urgent action to release poverty’s grip, the Scottish Government is on course to significantly miss its child poverty targets. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Scotland was blighted by poverty with a quarter of a million children trapped in poverty.
It continues: “A target is just a way of holding decision-makers accountable, albeit an important one. The more important evidence as to the human cost of missing these targets is shocking. Alarm bells must be ringing in the Scottish Government and Parliament because families all over Scotland need them to do more and do better.”
Must they be ringing, or do they actually care very much? The Judy and Punch show starring Sturgeon and Ross does not suggest so. It’s all about blame-shifting and of course the Tories’ ruthless determination to remove the uplift in Universal Credit is an easy whipping-boy.
Its greatest advantage for Ms Sturgeon is that it is outwith her control. However the Rowntree report does not pander to the lie that this is all about Universal Credit. Rather it is about political priorities for both governments and the pretence that, in reality, they are all that different. Just ask Scottish local government on which the poor depend far more than the rich.
The report quotes the National Records of Scotland’s most recent statistics: “People in the most deprived communities are 18 times more likely to have a drug-related death; more than four times more likely to have an alcohol-related death; three times more likely to die by suicide and at more than double the risk of a Covid-19 death”.
So much could be done to change these terrible social chasms but they require sustained commitment from Government. They involve the political risk of offending the better off by setting priorities which devolution was supposed to be about. Instead, when I hear Ms Sturgeon boasting how many voted for her, I am reminded of Mrs Thatcher’s guiding mantra that as long as she kept 40 per cent onside, she didn’t have to worry about the rest.
So stay in Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Ross. Don’t bother to park the cars. Just use the time saved to read that Rowntree report, then do exactly what it tells you.
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