THE QUESTION OF child poverty in Scotland recalls (spoiler alert) the conclusion to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In a sense, everyone on this carriage has plunged a knife in, and nobody is innocent.
Conservatives and Liberals are superficially the guiltiest of all, having imposed the raft of welfare reforms that are the most proximate contributor. The SNP and the Greens have their own culpability, having been in effective coalition for some time; taking credit for successes and disavowing responsibility for failures, they have made limited use of Scotland’s powers.
Labour? Quite apart from their own role in welfare reform, they have consistently failed to represent their voters in Britain’s poorer districts and have dismantled the traditions of working-class collectivism that may have offered a counterweight to neoliberalism. In a sense, their knife cut the deepest.
Politics aside, the facts are stark. All of these parties committed Holyrood to targets on child poverty. This included an interim target, now only three years away, of a reduction to 18 percent. But statistics now show that poverty was increasing, even before the pandemic, to roughly one in four. It’s unclear precisely what impact the lockdowns will have had on inequality. But even imagining coronavirus had never happened, Scotland would still have a mountain to climb to reach targets agreed by a cross-party consensus.
Naturally, face-saving answers will abound. Were you aware, nationalists may ask, that Scotland has lower child poverty than England and Wales, despite suffering under the same welfare regime? This is true, but, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, only marginally a question of government intervention, having more to do with comparably low housing costs.
And references to England’s figures only reinforce our vicious cycle. It emphasises that Holyrood will never be held accountable for failing to meet its own targets, so long as England remains our point of comparison. And it emphasises how much of Scottish policy remains buffeted between factors that escape democratic control, such as Westminster welfare policy and historically lower cost housing. Which highlights our twin, depoliticising evils: unionists who are the main cause of national division; nationalists who remains in perpetual power by exploiting the Union’s loopholes.
Either the Scottish Parliament has the power to address child poverty, or it doesn’t. But what we’ve got today is a halfway house, where politicians make vague pledges and even commit to specific targets, but never expect to be held accountable. Instead, they signal their virtue while fully intending to use rising poverty as yet another constitutional battleground to reproduce the status quo. You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to fathom the mutual guilt of all competing parties.