Deprivation in Glasgow. Photo: Getty
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Scottish independence: how inequality is fragmenting our nation

We are now a nation torn apart (soon perhaps literally) by inequality, and the danger is Scotland is merely the beginning

With Scotland about to vote on independence, there’s been much hand-wringing as to what may be the root cause of a possible Yes vote. One of the more popular and plausible observations is that a significant number of Scottish voters feel that political parties in Westminster do not represent them. It’s a compelling argument given not all of our politicians exude ‘everyman/woman’ qualities. But the problem is far greater than our political class.

We are now a nation torn apart (on Thursday perhaps literally) by inequality, and the danger is Scotland is merely the beginning. The simple truth is that material differences create social distances, and in the UK these material differences are vast.

Huge numbers of people in Scotland feel that the Westminster village is a long way from them, but so do people on the Mozart Estate in theLondon borough of Westminster. This goes beyond a simple lack of political representation, it is a growing feeling of distance between people, an increasing sense that a small number of people are soaring into the stratosphere while the rest of us are left behind.

And this is not just a gulf between the elite and the poorest. Since the financial crisis, people on middle incomes have become poorer while theinvestments of the rich have steadily gained value, or at least those able to invest in top FTSE companies. 

One of the perceived successes of the Yes campaign in Scotland is that is has mobilised huge numbers of social housing tenants – people often written off as so alienated from politics as to be very unlikely to vote (or as a Better Together strategist reportedly put it "people with mattresses in their gardens do not win elections"). This should tell all politicians something – that writing off those worst affected in our unequal society is not only deeply unjust, it may also be politically damaging. 

One of the few political parties well-positioned to benefit from this is of course UKIP, who claim to be a "people's army" ready to "topple the establishment". UKIP appeals to "the left behind", who now constitute vast swathes of the population. It is an intoxicating offer for the swelling numbers of people struggling to pay the bills and make ends meet.

There are short-term steps the political establishment can take to repair relations with the electorate and reengage with those worst affected by inequality. Part of that is to mind its language. Statements about mattresses in gardens obviously do not help, but neither do references to "middle earners" paying higher-rates of income tax, a statement patently untrue but allowed to swirl around public debate on taxation.

However, most of the steps necessary to reunify our nation are longer-term and less superficial. We do live in a nation run by elites. Only 7 per cent of people go to private school, but 71 per cent of senior judges do, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers, 55 per cent of Permanent Secretaries, 53 per cent of senior diplomats, 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List and the list goes on. The transition from this deeply elitist society to a fairer and more equal one will not be achieved overnight.

But steps can be taken to keep the nation together, whatever is left after Thursday. Over 80 per cent of people think the gap between the richest and the rest is too wide. The government that takes power in Westminster in 2015 must make it a priority policy goal to reduce that gap, while the nation still has enough coherence to be effectively governed.

Duncan Exley is director of The Equality Trust

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.