20 years devolution

Social Justice in Devolution: A Scottish vision of social justice

Published: 11 July 2019

In her first contribution to the twenty years of devolution series, Professor Kirstein Rummery  (University of Stirling) explores social justice in Scotland in light of devolution. In this week’s blog, she asks whether there was a coherent vision for social justice in the early years of devolution?

Social justice is an idea that has captured academic and political imagination. Building on the ideas of writers such as Sen and Nussbaum, it centres on the concept of the ‘capabilities’ that people need to be able to live meaningful lives, rather than focusing simply on income/poverty/inequality. The role of a responsible government under a social justice framework is to maximize the capabilities of citizens, and to address structural and individual issues that prevent them attaining the capabilities associated with citizenship. Whilst Sen refused to endorse a definitive list of capabilities, pointing out that functioning as a citizen is a highly contingent and context-specific, (Sen, 1999) Nussbaum disagrees, and asserts that it is possible to agree on the central human capabilities of life, bodily health, bodily integrity, sense, emotions, reason, affiliation, self-respect, and control over ones environment (Nussbaum, 2000).  The state plays an important role in ensuring that citizens have the capabilities to access and protect these elements. 

Social justice undoubtedly was an idea that underpinned the foundation of the Scottish Parliament.  Donald Dewar proclaimed that ‘we are committed to promoting social justice and equality of opportunity for everyone in Scotland’ (Dewar, 1999). His views were echoed in the case for independence made by Alex Salmond that ‘an independent Scotland could be a beacon for progressive opinion…addressing policy challenges in ways which reflect the universal values of fairness’ (Salmond, 2012). One of the first actions of the new Scottish Executive (later Scottish Government) in 1999 was to publish a strategy paper outlining a vision of co-operative policy making to address social justice and poverty (Scottish Executive, 1999).

However, as evidenced by social policies, the Scottish Government and Parliament have at times struggled to articulate a coherent vision for social justice in Scotland. On the one hand a commitment to universalism and supporting all Scots to be able to exercise the capabilities of self-determination (Sen, 1999) which are intrinsic to social justice has been apparent. There is a sense of social solidarity which underpins distinctively ‘Scottish’ social policies. A unifying Curriculum for Excellence , resistance to health policy reforms designed to increase competition, and universal access to pre-school childcare have been some of those policies which reflect a desire to create a non-stigmatising, non-residual welfare state in which costs and benefits are shared. Not only does universalism in education and health reflect areas in which Scotland already had substantial policy levers with which to deviate from the rest of the UK prior to devolution; they also arguably disproportionately benefit middle income citizens (and thus middle class voters).

On the other hand, in 1999 Scotland had a reputation for being the ‘sick man of Europe’ in terms of health inequalities (McCartney et al, 2012) and income inequality was stark. There was clear pressure on the Scottish Parliament from day one to address this, and universal policies would likely make these inequalities wider. Targeted welfare in areas where there were significant inequalities has often been the preferred approach: this does undermine the claim to a ‘fairer, more socially just’ Scotland as the evidence suggests that means testing and targeting creates stigma, leading to a residualist, rather than a universal welfare state.

Social justice along gendered lines also featured in the political architecture of the Scottish Government. From the decision to abandon the Westminster electoral system of first past the post (which disadvantages women), the founding principles of equality of opportunity, the use of gender neutral language, and the foundation of an Equal Opportunities (now Equalities and Human Rights Committee), the machinery of governance was designed to allow policy to be developed which addressed women’s access to social justice.

Despite most of the policy levers needed to address poverty and income inequality not being devolved, nevertheless antipoverty policy has always been a significant driver in Scottish social policy. From 1999 until 2009 relative poverty fell from 30% to 25%, and child absolute poverty fell to 15% over the same period (Scottish Government, 2018). The fall of unemployment over that period from 8% to 4% is probably largely responsible, as moving into work is the most reliable route out of poverty.

The first two terms of the Scottish Parliament saw Labour in charge and there was therefore not much policy deviation from the rest of the UK. The rise of the SNP from 2007 onwards saw some shifts in policy, although not significant at first, probably due to the lack of an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. The 2008 banking crash also reduced funding and therefore the policy levers available to address poverty in Scotland. A change in the focus of governance led to Single Outcome Agreements and the Scottish Government working in partnership with local authorities to achieve antipoverty strategies. However, tensions between the government and local authorities rose during a period of cutbacks in expenditure, not helped by a cap introduced to local taxation (a policy move that helped to cement the SNP’s political popularity with centrist and middle class voters, but which left local authorities struggling to meet statutory duties).

Issues such as free school meals – initially targeted at poorer children, but then extended to all P1-3s – universal childcare – again initially targeted at low income families then extended – gradually moved policy from a targeted to a more universal approach. Other universal measures such as free prescriptions, free personal care and no tuition feeds for home students at Scottish Universities also extended universal provision. In terms of fairness meaning equal access and solidarity, this was effective, but if fairness means income redistribution to tackle inequality then the Scottish Government has proved in policy terms to be less progressive. Free tuition has not resulted in more students from poorer backgrounds going to university: in contrast, educational inequalities in higher education in Scotland have grown in comparison to the rest of the UK (Riddell, 2009)

Moreover, the structural issues which underpinned women’s relative lack of capabilities and inequality were not substantially addressed prior to 2014. An overreliance on family care rather than investment in social care meant that 62% of Scotland’s unpaid carers in 2014 were women, with twice as many female as male carers relying on benefits. 95% of lone parent households receiving income support were headed by women, and twice as many women as men relied on state benefits for their income. Horizontal and vertical occupational segregation meant that the pay gap for full-time working women was 13%, rising to 34% for those working part-time. 81% of the austerity-mandated cuts to public spending following the 2008 banking crisis fell on women.

Painting England’s Towns (and Cities) Red: The 2024 Metro-Mayoral Elections

The 2024 Basque election and the region's long-term political landscape

A Week That Changed Scottish Politics? From Humza Yousaf to John Swinney

Does territorial autonomy redirect violence from the national to the subnational level?

Constitutionally Sound podcast