Robin McAlpine – 23rd September 2022
My daughter recently turned 13 and had a dozen pals up for a sleepover. When they pick music or comment on the world they sound like adults, but when they go outside to play they are, at least for one more year, children. When one gets a poke in the eye with a stick by mistake, the only really effective remedy is a cuddle from her mum. Safety.
But what safety for a child who is in the queue for lunch at school and is told ‘sorry, there is no money on your card’? If you haven’t seen the clip of the dinner lady (I can’t find a gender-neutral term) describing the blank, confused look on their faces as they ask ‘but what will I eat?’ then I recommend you get hankies before you do.
I don’t cry often (I’m a west of Scotland male and we reserve our tears for the hours of darkness once drink has been consumed). These events were exceptions, though with very different kinds of tears. But by the time we get to the Herald’s story about child hospital admissions due to malnutrition I’m not crying, I feel only rage.
I only tell you all this because I have to apologise because I don’t know how to express what I feel about this without swearing: children shouldn’t be fucking hungry. They just shouldn’t be fucking hungry anywhere in the world and they certainly shouldn’t be hungry in a rich country like fucking Scotland.
Sorry, no more swear words, but I can’t promise to withhold my anger. A thousand children a year are hospitalised because of malnutrition. Not a food bank visit out of desperation, not a visit to the GP in concern, not quiet suffering.
It’s a thousand children each year so ill from prolonged and consistent failure to eat that they are deemed to require hospital treatment. That’s about one in every 800 kids in Scotland. I find it impossible properly to reconcile this in my head. That this story broke during the 14,400 minutes’ silence (consecutive) for the death of the Queen means that so far the only silence for a child who dies of hunger in Scotland is from the politicians.
So let’s start getting some blame apportioned here because so help me if this turns into another ‘we took our eye off the ball, we’ll now take stock and identify lessons to be learned as we go forward in creating a greener, fairer Scotland’, I’ll need to be restrained.
The first blame (as with so much) goes to Thatcher and the events she set in train to create mass inequality in Britain. That is then followed by George Osborne’s vile austerity ideology where the poor are made to pay for the crimes of the rich. He is the guiding hand behind a lot of this.
But chronologically between these two comes the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats when they were in power, both of whom colluded to vote down Tommy Sheridan’s Free School Meals Bill on the basis of their New Labour ideology of targetting. Away and stare at your own feet in shame and learn the bitter lesson that big problems need big action.
The SNP of 2002 did vote in favour of the Free School Meals Bill and three administrations ago (early 2014) it did announce universal free meals for those in P1 to P3 (which commenced in January 2015). It took another seven years to extend this to P4 and P5, with roll out to P6 and P7 scheduled to happen by this August.
It didn’t; the Scottish Government quietly dropped that commitment and it is now little more than an unfunded soundbite (local authorities are expected to pay for expansion out of their own rapidly-shrinking budgets). That’s not realistic so seems unlikely to happen. And so far we’ve barely spent the annual budget of the ‘Chief Entrepreneur’. Priorities, right?
In 2015 when the Scottish Government had set out its ‘fairer, greener Scotland’ slogan, Cabinet Minister for Social Justice Alex Neil took this at face value and, working with a civil service team, produced a costed proposal to halve child poverty in five years at a cost of about £400 million per year – significantly less than the Scottish Government’s underspend last year.
It was a much bolder and more comprehensive version of the Scottish Child Payment (which has handed out £84 million over 18 months so far). When it was submitted to the First Minister personally she replied within the hour to say she didn’t read unaffordable proposals and refused to even consider it, so it never saw the light of day. Alex Neil was sacked shortly afterwards.
Instead, in a blaze of media promotion the First Minister appointed a Poverty Tsar, who produced an action plan. Then a follow-up report a year later expressing disappointment that nothing in her action plan had been done. I have never been able to find a statement about whether she was formally fired or not, but that was the last time she (or any Poverty Tsar) was seen or heard.
Then in 2017 the Scottish Government set out an ‘ambition’ (not a target) to cut child poverty to 18 per cent by 2023/24. But its own advisers warned it the plans were vague and the determination to not put any targets in it meant that it couldn’t even be monitored to see if it was working.
This turned out to be a smart move by the Scottish Government because what actually happened was that far from dropping, child poverty rose steadily from 24 per cent when the ambition was announced to 26 per cent just before the pandemic (no Covid excuses there). So it was a government fail – but not a missed target. Result!
Around the same time the boss of a secretive lobbying company was engaged in a campaign to convert the cause of independence into being a neoliberal cause for bankers. He succeeded; the SNP’s Growth Commission fiscal policies for independence would now devastate the poor every bit as much as George Osborne did. Independence used to be a solution to poverty. Now?
This litany of failed promises, inadequate policy interventions, right-wing ideology and hype-over-action has just been systematically shamed by a report of the Auditor General. The Scottish Government just isn’t serious about poverty. And as if all this isn’t bad enough, now we have Liz ‘trickle-down’ Truss.
What we learn from this is that virtually every politician except a Tory likes to spend on and do for the poor precisely as little as is necessary for affluent middle class commentators to say ‘at least they’re trying’. Malnourished children appear to matter less if a press release uses the right adjectives.
I can’t tell you how many rooms I’ve been in with how many political strategists and pollsters (New Labour, SNP, Yes Scotland). It is a universal belief among them all that the poor don’t vote so doing things for the poor doesn’t get you elected and since getting elected is the purpose of being a politician wasting time on the poor is pointless.
(The primary purpose of a politician is to get elected. Right?)
It’s hard not to feel that politics in Scotland has now almost totally abandoned morality and has replaced it with displays of performative morality which fall short of doing anything to challenge what is immoral. It’s crocodile tears for a child whose body is bent and distorted by hunger, but for a dodgy financier it’s half a billion pounds of public money in guarantees, drop of a hat, no questions asked.
Big plans to change society and challenge injustice are no more, replaced by lots of little plans hatched by politicians which can be summarised as ‘look at me!, look at me!’. That the last person to get a big and bold proposal on poverty as far as the debating floor of the Scottish Parliament was Tommy Sheridan is a kind of Scottish political version of carbon dating.
This is happening as the Financial Times points out that the UK is now a country of poor people with a few rich people among them – it is startling that on current trends the average UK household will have a lower income-based quality of life by the end of this decade than those in say Slovenia or Poland.
Scotland’s politicians seem content to go along with this give or take some window dressing. We don’t seem to have a single politician with a single big idea to do anything about this, never mind the comprehensive package of big ideas needed. It’s heartbreaking.
So we are plagued by some of Europe’s worst indicators of poverty – highest drug deaths, nearly the highest alcohol deaths, the highest prison population outside of former Soviet countries, falling life expectancy, one in four children growing up in poverty and rising. But we do next to nothing about it.
Throughout history, when societies fail there is no-one who suffers more than children and no-one who less deserves to suffer than children. In Scotland we live in between the clash of the almost sociopathic nature of our politics, the truly sociopathic economics that plague us and the brutal, brutal reality of the little frail bodies of children.
Scottish society deliberately chooses for these kids to be in hospital literally starving to death. When we decide not to act we choose it. When the politicians decide not to act and we accept it, we choose it. When the media reports, then forgets and moves on, we choose it. So ask yourself; what kind of people are we if this is what we choose?
And if you’ve read this and you’re thinking ‘McAlpine’s particularly angry this week’, I have only one response. Yes – aren’t you?