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4 January 2017

A baby box row shows Scotland isn’t Scandinavia yet

Universal benefits come with a change in culture too. 

By Julia Rampen

Earlier this year, I went to Finland to learn about early years education, and spent much of my time hearing about the baby box.  Every Finn I met had received one as a baby, and most initially slept in the box as well. With pride, my hosts pulled out one good quality item after another – a jauntily printed snowsuit, a toy rabbit, a blanket. 

The concept behind baby boxes is two-fold. First, in a country that still remembers widespread poverty, it provides every child with the equipment to start life (parents of a second child can request cash instead). Second, it is a constant reminder that all Finns are equal in the eyes of the state. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, you still get the box. 

In theory, the baby box means you could have a room full of toddlers all wearing the same cutesy snowsuit, and all cuddling the same favourite toy rabbit. If you’re a Finn, this may sound like Utopia. In the UK, by contrast, I found this suggestion got a mixed reaction. Some friends, both in Scotland and elsewhere, thought it was charming; others found it creepy. 

Scotland has in recent years drummed up its links to Scandinavia, and successive Scottish governments have looked across the water for policy ideas, from taxation and oil funds to its much-praised early years education. This week, the Scottish government launched Scotland’s version of the baby box. The box contains a similar collection of practical items to the Finnish counterpart, but it has sparked some un-Scandinavian conflict

The internet’s bean counters have complained it is a costly PR stunt, while self-styled literary critics and certain mothers’ groups alike have questioned the poem included in the box about love for the new child (written by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar, or poet laureate) on the grounds it tells new parents what to think. Labour weighed in to say there was a missed opportunity to promote breastfeeding.

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In fact, there is much to be welcomed about the arrival of the baby box. The dividends of early years support are tried and tested. It represents spending on working-age people at a time when much of their taxes go on an older generation. In a country worried about replenishing its population, it is also a smart move. 

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And, perhaps most significantly, the baby box marks a return to the idea of universal benefits at a time when Westminster rhetoric on benefits could hardly be more divisive. If a lawyer couple in Edinburgh’s well-heeled New Town receive a token of state support in the form of a taxpayer-funded baby box, so the argument goes, they are more inclined to pay their taxes in the first place.

But what I also noticed in Finland too was an unusually cohesive society, a collective memory of poverty that only goes back two generations, and a particular deference to the decree of the state. For example, our host considered it perfectly normal for the whole family to attend a baby’s medical check ups, and field questions about their personal finances and well-being too.

By contrast, the Scottish government’s named persions scheme, designed to streamline information about a child’s welfare, ended up being disputed in court. Perhaps Scotland will one day look like Scandinavia, but the baby box stooshie suggests it isn’t there yet. 

You can read the poem and make your own mind up about it here.