Two myths about the politics of inequality in Scotland

Published: 9 June 2015
Author: Paul Cairney
Constitutional discussions frequently obscure wider policy debates in Scotland, says Paul Cairney. His current research demonstrates that, as well as being obscured by constitutional clashes, issues of inequality are frequently treated with flashy quick fixes at the expense of long-term results. 
 
The first obvious myth about Scotland is that it is a land of milk and honey inhabited by a left-wing population that demands equality at all costs – or, even, that its financial advantage combines with consistently social democratic policies to reduce socio-economic inequalities to a level far below the rest of the UK.
 
In fact, Scotland’s social attitudes are more subtly left-wing, its devolved policies often diverge more in headline than substance, and – crucially – its record on inequalities does not match the rhetoric, of a social democratic Scotland, that we heard so often during the referendum campaign. For example, the Christie Commission, which set the Scottish Government’s new inequality agenda in 2011, stated that:
 
“[O]n most key measures social and economic inequalities have remained unchanged or become more pronounced … This country is a paradoxical tapestry of rich resources, inventive humanity, gross inequalities, and persistent levels of poor health and deprivation … In education, the gap between the bottom 20 per cent and the average in learning outcomes has not changed at all since devolution. At the same time, the gap in healthy life expectancy between the 20 per cent most deprived and the 20 per cent least deprived areas has increased from 8 to 13.5 years and the percentage of life lived with poor health has increased from 12 to 15 per cent since devolution. The link between deprivation and the likelihood of being a victim of crime has also become stronger.”
 
This set of problems receives only sporadic political attention, but there is some potential for a lack of progress on inequalities to frame the next Scottish Parliament election (if the constitutional question does not continue to dominate).
 
For example, high levels of inequality in school educational attainment, linked to income and poverty, and discussed at length by Dani Garavelli, have prompted Mandy Rhodes to argue that ‘Scotland’s record on closing the attainment gap is all but failing’, others to argue that ‘Scotland’s educational apartheid’ is ‘is Scotland’s greatest national disgrace’ (Alex Massie) that ‘shames the nation’ (Kevin McKenna), and John McDermott (backed by evidence from Lucy Hunter Blackburn) to argue that these inequalities are reinforced by Scotland’s free University tuition policy. The middle classes are more likely to do better at school, go to University, and leave with no debt than their working class peers. In other words, the claim is that the Scottish Government is either failing to solve the problem of inequality or making it worse – a charge that would be dynamite if the constitution did not dominate political attention so consistently for so long.
 
Yet, this conclusion has produced a second, equally problematic, myth: our obsession with Scottish independence has set back the inequalities agenda for years. This story has two main elements. First, the SNP government has taken its eye off the ball because it has been able to entertain its independence obsession, at the cost of paying attention to substantive social policy, without having to worry about the effect of its governing record on its popularity: inequality has worsened but its position remains strong while it can blame Westminster for any problem. Second, there is a simple solution to educational and other inequalities in Scotland – we just need to be driven by the evidence of success (for example, in other countries) and find the political will and leadership necessary to make tough decisions and stick to them.
 
Both of these points can be dismissed easily. First, maybe we don’t pay much attention to relevant policies, but the Scottish Government and Parliament do. In fact, there is unusually high agreement between parties on the need for the ‘decisive shift to prevention’ prompted by the Christie Commission, accepted wholeheartedly in government, and overseen by the Finance Committee. Further, when people do pay attention – when there is party political electoral competition and public attention to policy – it undermines long term policy strategies. Bursts of attention to political issues tend to produce rushed solutions to the wrong problem – more money goes to acute hospital care to reduce waiting times or to local authorities to boost teacher numbers and reduce class sizes, taking money away from the policies designed to reduce inequalities in the long term.
 
Second, the key problem that we need to face, if we want to go beyond simply shaming the nation’s or the government’s record, is that we don’t know what the evidence is and what policy should be. No politician or political commentator likes to admit that they can see a huge problem but don’t have a clue about how to solve it – yet, that is the problem we face. The simple solutions of media commentators are untested and their success rests largely on assertion rather than evidence. Or, when experts are called upon to settle the matter, you find that equally eminent scholars support contradictory solutions.
 
My new research with Emily St Denny shows just how far this problem goes. Even if there is cross-party agreement on the need to act, no one quite knows how to do it: how to define ‘prevention’ policies, gather evidence of ‘best practice’ (from home and abroad), turn the evidence into policies that can be ‘scaled up’ across the country, and demonstrate success for long term projects in a way that helps them compete for funding with high profile and popular quick fixes. What seems like an academic discussion about the nature of evidence and the mechanics of policy delivery is actually an issue at the core of the inequality debate. We show how foolish it would be to assume that the problem can be solved solely by attention and political will.
 
The latest version of the paper underpinning this blog is linked to at Cairney 2015 EBPM and best practice 22.4.15. The paper also underpins a talk I gave to the Scottish Government on (9 June 2015), and an academic-practitioner workshop, given the following day, which brought together the Scottish Government, Parliament, academics and policy practitioners to discuss how to move on from the broad commitment to reduce inequalities to actual projects with demonstrable success.

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