A mining tragedy reminds us, in an employment world increasingly office based and white collar, that some folk do still go out to work never to return.
Such tragedies also remind us to think carefully when shaping our own economy. Underground Scotland is no doubt rich in minerals – we could have a highly successful and profitable mining industry if we wanted to invest in setting it up. But it would involve destruction of large tracts of our overground environment and provide a fossil-faced future approach for industry, rather than one focused on harnessing new technologies and opportunities through renewables. And it would involve accepting that danger and death are prices worth paying by some communities for our collective economic benefit.
We are fortunate that Scotland’s abundance enables us to make different choices. Future generations will surely benefit, but recent unemployment figures suggest we are indeed at risk of creating a lost generation, with nearly one million young adults across the UK now out of work. And while Scotland continues to buck the trend by reducing unemployment against rising joblessness for the whole of the UK, the number of young Scots out of work is at its highest for a decade – and rising.
The Scottish Government is not oblivious, thankfully. Its economic strategy, published last week, includes the ambition to create Opportunities for All and ensure that every young person is in some form of education or training. The election commitment to create 25,000 modern apprenticeships every year will help, as will other measures like the strategic priority to move to a low carbon economy, opening up new trades and career choices. It is one reason why the restructuring of further and higher education is so necessary, for we are currently not teaching the sort of courses and skills that will be required in the future. This is clearly a government capable of joined-up thinking.
Indeed, the strategy has a confident flourish symptomatic of a Cabinet Secretary in John Swinney at the top of his game: he does not shift wholesale from priorities or objectives of the last four years but recalibrates the focus to take account of very different economic circumstances. The fundamentals remain the same: the Purpose is “to focus the Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth.”
Simples huh? And therein lies the nagging doubt. The strategy reads simply, there is an unerring faith in the linkability of its objectives and proposals. If we do x and y, z will follow. But I’m not so sure some of it is that simple.
For example, the strategy asserts that “by building a more dynamic and faster growing economy we will increase prosperity, be better placed to tackle Scotland’s health and social challenges, and establish a fairer and more equal society.” Yet, history supports the contention that dynamic economic growth by itself cannot establish a fairer and more equal society. Indeed, one only needs to look back on the last decade to see how Gordon Brown’s failed attempt to end boom and bust has resulted in greater levels of inequality than ever before. The rich benefited from the boom more than the poor, yet are able to ride out the current storm much more successfully than those on low incomes.
Thus, behind the bold intentions of the Opportunities for All initiative, one hopes there is some real thinking going on, to ensure that young people leaving care, or who are living with third generation unemployment, who are young parents, whose schools breathed a sigh of relief when they left at sixteen, who have complex and/or multiple disabilities – all the groups most likely not to be in education, employment or training right now – are able to take up those opportunities and for them to lead to decent, well paid employment that mean they get a decent shot at life. Providing the initiative is one thing, ensuring the support is there that allows it to succeed is quite another. And I would not recommend the Labour and now Conservative methodology of paying private firms by results as the way to fix some of the issues in young people’s lives.
The strategy does suggest a different approach will be taken through its strategic priorities of effective government and equity. Both focus on prevention, meaning shifting away from crisis intervention in services eg someone moving into a care home to early intervention eg the support someone needs to stay living at home, in their community. Everyone accepts this has to happen: we all understand the why but what is missing – still – is the how and the what. The hard decisions, in fact, in terms of public sector reform which local government has failed to date to make.
Moreover, the section on equity is muddy, and I’m sure a sociologist could deconstruct it more effectively than me (I’m open to guest post offers!) There is a thoughtful, linear approach to what to tackle and how but phrases like equity, equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not interchangeable. I am not totally certain the Scottish Government gets that, though it certainly comprehends the need to shift approach in addressing poverty from one that insists the state can fix it, to building resilience and capacity in individuals and communities to guide them through life. The adoption and championing on the community development model is to be welcomed.
Overall, there is a sureness of touch at work here. The strategy is bold, competent and entirely focused on Scotland’s strengths, weaknesses and circumstances: an embodiment, then, of why people voted SNP in May.
And it is reassuring that the Scottish Government is prepared to lead from the front. This is an SNP government which believes it has the answers: it knows where it wants to take Scotland and her people, and is sure it knows how to get there. Let us hope, given the tough times we live in, and the tougher ones ahead, that it does.