Alex Salmond’s suggestion that Scotland is more predisposed towards ‘social justice’ than other parts of Britain is absurd, repellent, and embarrassing. Let’s take those points in order.
From the Left’s perspective first. To care about the dispossessed must surely imply a sense of solidarity. I walked to the BBC studio this morning through a nearly empty, still cold Brighton. Only nearly empty – the people who’d slept rough the night before were in evidence, of course. Salmond’s message of solidarity, of concern for the dispossessed in England, is: ‘Get lost. You don’t matter, except that my new socially just Scotland will act as a beacon to the socially unjust English.’
That Salmond beacon, unfortunately, would not warm a single, homeless, English soul. If you think political action can alleviate poverty, on what basis do you make such action more efficacious, by drawing an arbitrary circumference around those you seek to help?
During the discussion on the Today programme, my opponent claimed it was ‘specious’ of me to ask whether my English father had less concern for justice than my Scottish mother. But it’s entirely the right question to ask: it’s not those of us who are happy being Scottish and British who claim that such a qualititative difference exists. Nationalists do not like to follow through their arguments, but ‘Scotland is more in favour of social justice than England’ must have such a follow-on, direct interpretation, or it is a void claim. Well, it is void, as void as it is repellent. No-one should fall for the dog whistles of a demagogue, waxing on misty-eyed about the properties of his ‘people’.
To see how embarrassing Salmond’s claim is, even on its own terms, we should move our perspective a little to the Right (but we’ll stay personal). I was born in 1970 in Ayrshire, a county that has been run for all that time by the Labour party or the SNP. Strathclyde Regional Council had far more influence on my schooling (and hence my life chances), and my parent’s jobs, than Thatcher ever did. How successful have the Left been, in delivering their social justice agenda?
It’s hard to think about that question without locating some of my own anger – which is real, and not synthetic, unlike (I suspect) that of the shouty nationalist I encountered on Today. We’ve had fifteen years of Scottish Parliament, plenty of time (for example) to do something about the inequalities in state education. Nothing doing. Those famous PISA surveys show that the gap in maths achievement between the most and least advantaged Scottish children is the equivalent of comparing Hong Kong (3rd in the PISA rankings) with Turkey (44th.) Educational policy is under the entire control of the Scottish parliament: this cannot be blamed on ‘English Tories’.
Fifteen years is long enough, too, to wonder if there might not be a link between the unchanging politics on offer from Salmond’s parliament, and the shameful life expectancies in parts of Glasgow. But the most eye-catching of Salmond’s commitments to tackling social justice has been to discriminate against English students who study in our universities (they pay fees; Scots – and others – don’t.)
There is a British politician who was radicalised by Scottish poverty, of course, who was moved to create an entire movement for social justice as a result of his Easterhouse conversion. I presume even Iain Duncan Smith’s critics wouldn’t suggest that his mission in government is not fuelled by what he first saw in Glasgow.
His – and the Right’s –insight is that you can’t have any justice if you don’t tackle unemployment. The irony is that the jobs which are coming to Scotland are the product of an English radical system, and not a platitudinous Scottish nationalist one.
That I disagree with Salmond (and his pop singing supporters) doesn’t, of course, invalidate the right of Scotland to be independent, should the current generation of people who live there so wish. I’m not the one who claims to be able to see into the soul of a nation. But I trust my compatriots – Left, Right or Centre, Ayrshire-born or arrivals from elsewhere – to look at what Salmond is offering, look at what he’s done … and to turn him down, with a polite (are you reading, Pat Kane?) ‘no thanks’.