The Future of Scotland

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 10:47 am on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Colin Fox Colin Fox SSP 10:47 am, 29th March 2007

On 23 May 2006, at the University of Stirling, the First Minister gave a lecture called "Scotland's Future: Thinking for the Long Term". I came across his speech while I was tidying up my office. Among other things, he said:

"It is crystal clear to me, though, the greatest change required. Poverty and inequality are at the root of Scotland's greatest weaknesses."

I agree, but here we are a year later, and his record in office is exposed by the facts. Behind the bare statistics is untold misery, which was revealed again this week. A report by Barnardo's states that inequality is at its greatest since 1961, that 2.8 million children in Britain live in absolute poverty, which represents an increase of 100,000 since last year, and that 12.7 million people in Britain live in relative poverty, which represents an increase of 600,000.

The day after that report was published, The Scotsman reported that the joint ministerial committee on child poverty, which is led by the Treasury and headed by Gordon Brown, has not met for five years. The committee is supposed to work on child poverty and liaise between the Treasury, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly, but it has not met since September 2002. That epitomises the fact that new Labour's warm words, which we heard from the First Minister again this morning, stand in stark contrast to its actions.

The report and the article expose the fact that the Executive does not give a flying fig about eradicating poverty. It makes promises on the never-never. In response to the Barnardo's report, the First Minister said that he would redouble his efforts, but two times nothing is still nothing. The Executive feels the need to be seen to do something about poverty but it does not feel the need actually to do something about it.

The Parliament has discussed the United Nations Children's Fund's league table on child well-being, which ranked Britain 21st out of 21 countries. The Scandinavian countries are at the top of the table because they have progressive tax systems. The Executive does not have what it takes to change things. It cannot tell its rich friends and the financiers that they will have to pay more tax and get their noses out of the trough because the needy need to get in. We need to be clear and honest with the electorate. To change inequality and poverty, and the affront that the rich are to poor people, demands a U-turn in the decade-long politics of Blairism. That is what we are dealing with.

I understand the other parties in the Parliament when they say that it is logical to reduce corporation tax. As a young accountant, I worked on firms' books when corporation tax under Mrs Thatcher was at 52 pence in the pound. Labour reduced it to 40, then 30 and, last week, it was reduced to 28 pence in the pound. I have even heard my friends in the independence movement, the SNP, demanding that it be cut to 12 pence in the pound.

Where is the logic in seeking to entice businesses here to allow them to pay less tax? The corporate elite is already spoiled and does not give a damn where it sets up businesses, where it goes for cheap labour or where it gets cheap rent and government loans. It does not give a damn about the countries it goes to; it goes where it can get the lowest level of corporation tax. That is blackmail. Let those companies go elsewhere. Britain sucked in capital in the 1980s and 1990s because it was fleeing from other countries where corporations sought to ignore their corporate social responsibilities.

Social democracy was established as a political philosophy 100 years ago. It emerged to confront precisely the kind of capitalist commercial orthodoxy we see today. However, in more recent times, we have seen the political evacuation of that ground by parties that once called themselves social democrats; parties that have been completely taken in by the neo-liberalism of the 21st century, and Scotland is part of that.

The consequences are not just inequalities in wealth, but those that we saw in Edinburgh this week when 720 families or tenants were desperately trying to get a one-bedroomed flat in Stenhouse. Those are the consequences. Military chiefs of staff talk about how Iraq has been a catastrophic failure of this Government's policy. The Stenhouse example shows that the Executive's housing policy has been a catastrophic failure for tenants up and down the country.

As Alex Neil rightly said, this country is heartily sick of new Labour. I have no doubt that, given a choice, Scotland would not have sent troops to fight in Iraq, would not have nuclear weapons based on the Clyde, and would not have the council tax, prescription charges or nuclear power stations. Scotland's vast wealth would be reduced to ensure free school meals for our youngsters and give the poor a helping hand. That is the Scotland that we know. It is in favour of public ownership of our public services and not privatisation of our hospitals, schools, public housing, prisons and roads.