Red Scotland unrealised?

Elaine Smith argues the Scottish Parliament has made little progress in realising it essential tasks.

Gordon Brown, in The Red Paper (1975), argued: ‘The irresistible march of recent events places Scotland today at a turning – not of our own choosing but where a choice must sooner or later be made’. He went on to suggest that the manifest issues at that time facing Scotland were ‘our unstable economy and unacceptable level of unemployment, chronic inequalities of wealth and power and inadequate social services’.

One turning point was the referendum for a Scottish Parliament in 1997; enabled by the election of a Labour Government following eighteen years of the Tories. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of a devolved parliament with tax varying powers; widely believed to be a reaction to the way Scotland had been treated during Thatcher’s era. The belief that a Scottish Parliament would be a bulwark against further right-wing Tory policy was a motivating factor in the support for devolution.

I was elected in 1999 as the first MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston and the Parliament opened with great fanfare. Some major changes were already visible such as the number of women elected. This was the third highest of any parliament in the world. However, women’s representation has plummeted from third in the world in 1999 to thirty second now. In comparison, Cuba, thirteenth in 1999, has now taken second place. A critical mass of women is important and results in progressive legislation in areas such as domestic abuse, breastfeeding and period poverty.

Initially, the expectation that this parliament would be different to Westminster and would be more left-leaning did seem to be realised. Labour won the most seats of any party but, without an overall majority, entered coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Former Labour MSP, John McAllion, and I argued at the time for a minority Labour administration which we felt would be better placed to drive a more socialist agenda.

The system of member’s bills meant Tommy Sheridan (the then sole SSP MSP) was successful in outlawing the cruel practice of poindings and warrant sales. This was achieved as he gained the support of left-wing labour MSPs. However, the prospect of more such legislation gaining cross-party support did not last as party political pressures began to emerge; with positions evolving to become more entrenched. In addition, constitutional issues have taken precedence over policies to deliver a fairer Scotland. Some member’s bills have had success, such as my own Breastfeeding bill, but they need to be supported by the government to succeed.

Likewise, the committee system was supposed to operate as a second chamber to hold government to account but doesn’t work as expected. For example, if amendments to bills are passed at committee, they can be overturned by the Government at Stage 3. The committees do work hard scrutinising legislation but are susceptible to pressure from whips.

Two decades on and has our parliament lived up to the expectations many on the left had at its inception of accessible democracy and a more socialist Scotland? In terms of access, voting systems, sitting times and committees there have been some improvement over the Westminster system. However, the issues identified by Gordon Brown in 1975 have not been resolved and it could be argued they are worse. The idea that people, including those in work, would be dependent on foodbanks (unheard of in 1999) would have been met with disbelief. And yet, the Scottish government is resisting legislating for a right to food.

Homelessness on the rise, educational standards declining and child poverty set to dramatically increase are not scenarios anticipated twenty years ago. In 2003, the Labour-led administration implemented the most progressive homelessness legislation in Europe yet now our streets are sadly occupied by many rough sleepers. We started out with a world class Scottish education system. It is now in decline with a growing attainment gap, college places lost and learning support reduced. The SNP promised to scrap student debt in 2007 but, instead, it is rising.

Perhaps worst of all, child poverty is predicted to hit the shocking figure of 29% in 2023. The graph below shows that it began to decline in the late 1990s but has been on the rise again since 2010. Cruel Tory welfare policies can be blamed but so too can the SNP government. With much increased powers over income tax rates, they could mitigate the two-child cap; implement the £5 top-up to child benefit and bring forward the introduction of a minimum income standard. Free school meals could be rolled out, with holiday hunger addressed nationally as it has been by some Labour councils. Instead, Tory austerity has been passed on tenfold by the SNP to local government. This was not envisaged by those on the left on Scotland in 1999. Indeed, initial editor of the Scottish Left Review and my good friend, the late Jimmy Reid said: ‘The mega-rich want less public spending so that they may pay even less tax. The only alternative is that we pay more taxes to fund the expenditure required to make our society more civilised. It really is as simple as that. Which side are you on?’ (‘Power without Principles’, 1999). Twenty years later and the Tories are on the rise in Scotland pushing Labour into third place. Until we have a Labour-run Scottish government implementing socialist policies ‘for the many, not the few’, then we will not see the promise of our Scottish Parliament fully realised.

Elaine Smith is the Labour MSP for Central Region and Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Eradication of Poverty and Inequality.

Graph from the Scottish Parliament

Source: SPICe, 9 April 2019