The first meeting of the Joint UK-Scottish Action Group on Poverty takes place on Friday 19 May in Edinburgh. While this new co-operation marks another stage in the new relationship between Scotland and the United Kingdom parliament, and in the business of making devolution work, the action group has an even larger purpose. It affirms, on behalf of two Labour-led administrations, that the war on poverty and unemployment is the purpose of our politics and the priority for all our work.
Scotland has a choice in the year ahead. Either it retreats into the politics of identity, where, as we saw in the Scottish Parliament debate on independence on 10 May, the focus is on the status of institutions and the issue is constitutional confrontation between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Or, as the Scottish people want us to do, we make the pursuit of social justice and a night-and-day effort to promote a fairer society our principal and guiding aims.
Since the Second World War, we have seen three phases in Scottish politics. The first and longest was the campaign for the Scottish Parliament. What started as the dream of a few became, by the 1990s, the settled will of the Scottish people. The second phase has been the establishment of the parliament itself. Not surprisingly, the focus over the past year has been on the procedures and the personalities of the new parliament.
Now we must, as the Scottish people desire, enter the third phase – the era of radical social progress. Here the focus should be on attacking poverty, unemployment and injustice wherever we find it and on putting the reformed institutions to work, not just to improve Scotland’s democracy, but also Scotland’s conditions of life. That desire to promote social justice lay behind the Labour-led administration’s biggest first-year achievements: housing, land and educational reform, the new anti-poverty strategy and the pioneering Scottish drugs enforcement agency.
Each of these reforms has made the case for devolution, because devolution has allowed more parliamentary time to debate and decide and has allowed more people and institutions to be consulted and to help produce effective solutions.
Yet this focus on social justice also leads us to propose a new politics of co-operation. Quite simply, if we are to tackle poverty and unemployment, we can do so only by Scottish and UK administrations working together, rather than splitting apart.
Let us be clear: if the only task of our political institutions was to advance identity politics, there would be little case for joint action. But, because social justice rather than separation is our objective, joint action is not only desirable, but essential.
For decades, mass unemployment has been Scotland’s biggest single cause of poverty and deprivation. Since May 1997, 50,000 more Scots have found jobs, 25,000 of them in the past year. Progress has been made, but there is still much more to do, and we must look at how, together, Scottish and UK administrations can encourage new jobs. The Scottish administration has responsibility for enterprise, training and employment, and the UK government has responsibility for taxation, investment and macro- economic reform. They will do most to create new jobs by working together.
There could not be a clearer example of this than the New Deal. Since it started in 1998, 44,000 Scots have joined the New Deal, and already 21,000 have found jobs. Youth unemployment has fallen by two-thirds, but there is more to do – not least in areas where unemployment hit hardest in the Eighties and Nineties and where despair has been the greatest.
The way forward is to combine new UK-wide incentives and opportunities with Scottish and local initiatives that can help on the ground.
So the action group on poverty is discussing intensive help for the young unemployed who are without basic literacy and numeracy. It is also discussing how to remove all the barriers, from transport to skills, that prevent young people finding jobs, and how, through initiatives ranging from TV advertising to the use of call-centres, we can help employers fill the 100,000 Scottish vacancies currently on offer.
Since 1997, 100,000 Scots families have been taken out of poverty, but that is only the start in the anti-poverty strategy we have outlined. We need to consider the next stage in improving support through the benefits and tax system at a UK level, but also how services for children – pre-school and nursery education – can be improved. Indeed, the war against child poverty will not be won by the two administrations alone; it must also involve parents and community, voluntary and charitable organisations.
Since 1997, enormous advances have been made in the new economy and in bridging the digital divide. But we have more to do both in schools – promoting the use of computers – and in our communities, where computer-learning centres must become the norm. And we have more to do in supporting the transition to the information-age economy. Only 4 per cent of our poorest households have access to the internet, and too few have the necessary skills for the new economy. New fiscal incentives are being introduced to stimulate new technology into manufacturing and service firms.
So we are considering the next steps in both our anti-poverty strategy and our plans for the new economy – and how we can co-operate to secure the best results. Joint action is the quickest and most effective way of producing positive results for the people of Scotland.
It is because the politics of social justice are what matter that we reject the Scottish Nationalist Party’s politics of identity. It is true that, over the long campaign for a parliament, many people supported it for different reasons. A Diverse Assembly, the aptly named anthology of recent writings on devolution by Professor Lindsay Patterson, revealed that the Scottish Parliament was always the object of often widely divergent hopes and expectations.
Patterson concludes that the pursuit of the Scottish Parliament brought together those who argued for what the parliament could be (a beacon for good government, a symbol of Scottish identity) with those who argued for what a Scottish Parliament could do to realise Scotland’s priorities of social justice and democracy. At its most basic, there has always been a divergence between those who saw and still see the parliament as a staging post to independence and those who saw and see it as a weapon for social justice.
This was evident not only in the first words spoken in the new parliament by the SNP member Winifred Ewing, but also in the debate called by the Nationalists on independence and a separate state.
Here were the real voices for the break-up of Britain in what have been familiar claims during the parliament’s first year: seeing Scottish politics as still about institutional conflict rather than social justice, and using the Scottish Parliament as a constitutional battering ram against Westminster.
Their answer to every problem raised in the parliament is not to get down to solving it, but is – and will remain – a call for separation. So they want the political argument to be about advancing the status of the institutions and what the parliament is, rather than about advancing the purpose of our politics and what the parliament does.
At every stage, their interest is in proving not that devolution can work, but that it cannot work – which is why, within the parliament, they seek to advance a form of default nationalism.
We can see it in the obsession with moving beyond the parliament’s remit – and debating social or economic issues reserved for Westminster, rather than confronting many of the pressing challenges over which the Scottish Parliament has real power.
This is a rerun of the old Nationalist politics of grievance, and it is a refusal to accept that with the devolution of power has come the responsibility to exercise power. It is a return to the old argument that even those who are elected to exercise power are not responsible, and that someone else is always to blame.
What is advertised as a pro-Scottish strategy is, in fact, an anti-British strategy. And it leads to another SNP tactic: to seek to systematically delegitimise Westminster in the eyes of the Scottish public. No opportunity is missed to try to denigrate the right or legitimacy of Scottish MPs to represent the interests of their constituents in the British parliament.
So this default nationalism starts with a focus not so much on social and economic needs as on the status of the parliament. It grows with a demand that the parliament debates issues that are not devolved, even at the expense of debating the issues for which powers have been devolved. And, for this default nationalism, it is but a short step to declaring that the parliament is the forum for all issues affecting Scotland – with Westminster held to be irrelevant.
And many reporting the parliament, even those who oppose Nationalist politics, are drawn into this Nationalist agenda, whose success is to be judged, not by how much poverty in Scotland is reduced, but by how much Scotland’s role in Britain is reduced.
So it is time to tell the Nationalists that the issues that people elected us to address – poverty, unemployment, poor housing, the evil of drugs and crime – are more important, more central to Scottish people’s lives, than reruns of the old constitutional arguments or the transient coverage of procedures and personalities.
In our view, the people have moved on from the constitutional infighting. Indeed, they want to leave these arguments behind. Having voted for the new and better democracy, they now want us to deliver a new and better society. They want us to turn the promise of devolution into its achievement, and they want us to work together to do so.
For the pioneers of devolution from Keir Hardie to John Smith, politics was never limited to an arid and sterile argument around the status of institutions, or confined to a narrow constitutionalism.
Like us, they would judge the parliament’s success not by the extent to which the institution diverged from the rest of Britain, but by the extent to which poverty and inequality was reduced.
For us, as for them, the new parliament is a democratic advance in a larger and enduring struggle to realise great social ideals.
It is this agenda that we will push forward through co-operation to tackle poverty and unemployment. Even the opening ceremony of the parliament – and the singing that accompanied Sheena Wellington’s moving rendition of “A man’s a man for a’ that” – symbolised this.
A decade previously, in 1989, in the assembly hall, Margaret Thatcher’s testament to inequality, her sermon on the Mound, was met by a defiant silence that in itself spoke volumes.
Now, in the same hall, Burns’s anthem to egalitarianism confidently proclaimed the values of community, equality and solidarity that had brought many of us into politics.
It spoke to the potential, indeed the prize, of a Scottish Parliament – that we should never retreat into narrow parochialism or the politics of grievance. We should lift our sights higher, to the challenge of building a Scottish society true to the values of fairness and justice. That is the expansive politics of great social ideals which, in the years to come, will triumph over the divisive politics of identity.
Gordon Brown MP is the Chancellor of the Exchequer
Douglas Alexander is Labour MP for Paisley South