Tough on children. Tough on the cause of children.

A record number of children were born in Scotland in 2008, the highest in fact since the turn of the century.  Yet, the parents of those 60, 041 babes might just be regretting their decision to start a family in that year.  Just as the parents of the near million children born in the last sixteen years might be gulping a little right now.  But they won’t be nearly as worried as the parents under 21 of at least 5,000 babies born in the last couple of years.

Unwittingly, they have all provided meek austerity fodder for the aspirations of both Labour and Conservative parties in their quest for wins in marginal seats to propel them into government at Westminster next year.

Step forward children of Scotland, for you, who have no votes and little voice are about to pay a high price for the profligacy of us all.

I thought I had heard and seen the worst of what New Labour had to offer when, fresh into government in 1997, it decided to remove the lone parent premium from child benefit.  That doyen of fairness and social justice – who preaches pooling and sharing and solidarity and unity now that it suits him – Gordon Brown was the one who decided to effectively freeze child benefit for lone parents for years.

But just when I thought the lesson had been learned – or at least, one of the lessons Margaret Curran keeps on assuring us Labour will get round to learning one day – up pops Ed Balls to promise that everyone has to pay the price of austerity. Trying to show that he is not just Balls by name, the Shadow Chancellor decided it was time to get down on the kids.  If Labour wins the UK election next year it will cut child benefit in real terms for all families by keeping increases to 1 per cent in the first two years of the next Parliament.  This, he decreed, was evidence that Labour won’t “duck the difficult decisions” saving £400 million from family finances in order to cut the deficit. Apparently, Labour won’t spend money it can’t afford – so it will make sure families find it harder to afford essentials like food, school uniforms and shoes too.

When the government deficit is in the trillions, when even the Scottish block grant amounts to tens of billions, £400 million over two years is chickenfeed.  Chickenfeed that is in government spending, but the universality of the cap means it will disproportionately hurt those families on the lowest incomes more.  Yep, in favour of universality when it suits them, when there is squeezing and saving to be achieved.

Still, Balls proved himself to be the equivalent of George Osborne’s warm up act.

The measures he and indeed, Iain Duncan Smith announced today at Conservative party conference are so abhorrent in terms of their potential for harm to children that you wonder if they employed Cruella de Vil, Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother and Rumpelstiltskin to concoct them.

Osborne saw Balls on his 1% cap on child benefit and raised him – a two year freeze on all working age benefits, including child benefit and working and child tax credit.  “We are going to finish what we have started. What I offer is a serious plan for a grown-up country. An economic plan for hardworking people.”  Clearly, families in work, on poverty pay, with dependent children do not qualify as hardworking. And neither do young people.

Overall, the measures will save £3 billion on the welfare bill.  But never fear, those big companies who avoid paying their fair share of tax?  A clampdown.  Again.  Which will bring in millions or even, hundreds of millions.  So big business goes on making big profits, cocking a snook at the idea of paying its share, while families with children suffer an unprecedented squeeze.

The Tories also announced “an ambitious package to end the fate of 18 to 21 year olds languishing on unemployment benefits“.  Six months to get a job or else.  An apprenticeship, a training scheme or community work, for an allowance, not a wage.  The Prime Minister refused to, or failed to clarify, whether young adults with children would be excluded.  Which means they probably won’t.  No benefits, a paltry allowance, sanctions if you don’t.  Welcome to the Tories’ idea of a grown up country which punishes children for daring to be born.

Some children deserve to be punished more.  Any child which dares to be born to feckless parents who have “fallen into a damaging spiral” – substance misuse or debt or one of the other myriad symptoms of poverty – they will have the dignity of money removed from them and get vouchers instead.  They might as well hang a bell round their neck while they’re at it. On one level, they have a point. It is important to ensure that children’s basic needs are met.  But you don’t do that by further diminishing their parents’ capacity: you help to create control over their lives and their circumstances, investing in their assets, in their capacity, competence and confidence.

And listening to it and trying to digest it all, the question keeps returning – what have innocent children – thousands, hundreds of thousands of children – done to deserve this?  Why are they the ones to pay the price of austerity?  Where is the compassion for our most vulnerable, voiceless citizens?  Where is the acknowledgement that for our economy and society to thrive in the years to come we will need the next generation to have been invested in, to have been given the best possible start in life so that they might go on to have decent life chances.

Every child should enjoy equality of opportunity, no matter their circumstances. The opportunity of a warm, dry home.  Of a childhood free from the stress and strain of financial worries and debt.  Of nourishing meals as a given, not an occasion. Of rights given freely by those with responsibility for their well-being.  Of being valued, cherished, nurtured. Of growing up safe and secure.

Instead, Labour and Tories are engaged in a race to the bottom, to determine which party can be toughest on children and toughest on the cause of children.

And we are powerless to prevent it going ahead.






Show us the money!

At least, now we know.

If Scotland votes no in 2014, we face years, if not decades of austerity, of scrimping and scraping, of unemployment and under-employment and of cuts to public services.  No matter who wins the UK election in 2015, Conservative or Labour, we’re going to keep the current spending limits and aim to pay down the debt.  Westminster fiddles while we all burn.

For months, people have been clamouring for information in our constitutional debate and for certainty about what the future holds.  And if this kind of certainty isn’t a potential game-changer in the independence referendum campaign, I’m not sure what is.

For this isn’t exactly what folk had in mind.  The question being put by the undecideds and doubters has invariably been directed at the yes campaign; tell us what independence feels, smells and tastes like to help us make up our minds.  The challenge for Yes Scotland and the Scottish Government is to turn this around, to mess with everyone’s minds if you like and to make the certainty of our economic future a reason to embrace change.  It’s not the uncertainty of a future going it alone that should be vexing you, but the certain path being laid out which offers nothing but sackcloth and ashes.

And it’s time to make a mockery of the premise at the heart of the no campaign – that we are Better Together, because patently we are not going to be.

The Chancellor, ahead of the Spending Round statement for 2015-16 he will deliver this coming Wednesday, launched a natty wee video, to explain in simple terms what our current financial predicament means.  At least £13 billion of cuts, on top of the £11 billion or so already announced for next year.

It’s not clear what this means for Scotland until the actual budget allocations are announced, but given that we are not one of the Treasury’s ring-fenced budgets, we can hazard a guess that it means less money being handed to us to spend.  John Swinney has an article today in Scotland on Sunday which outlines how Westminster is eroding our economic powers:

Since 1999 Scotland’s freedom to allocate spending on Scotland’s priorities has been curbed, constrained and curtailed by creeping Treasury controls. Scotland’s money has been progressively divided into different pots with restricted uses, without any consultation.”

The argument has validity and should – rightly – spark indignation, particularly when UK budget statements start to interfere with democratic spending decisions already made here in Scotland.  As they did, this year.

Moreover, the grievance card has its place in the suit of options available to the Scottish Government in this debate:  it’s not been deployed nearly as much as it was in the first SNP Holyrood administration and we can expect it to appear more frequently as we grind towards the vote in September 2014.  Good.

But we need to start conducting this debate in a language that people can understand, which makes sense to their sense of everyday and which makes it patently clear what certainty means.  The Scottish Government needs to start showing us the money.

Thus, the response needs to be both political and micro-economic. The Scottish Government needs to spell out what this democratic deficit means, that every year that the Tories ring fence spending for schools south of the border makes it harder for us to do the same up here.  And to start setting out starkly what it means when the Chancellor puts austerity before growth in his economic strategy.  We might all nod blithely along when our Cabinet Secretary for Finance rails against this, but in truth we haven’t a clue what it means.

So tell us.  Get us a natty wee cartoon which shows what the cuts to the Scottish budget actually look like.  In terms of leaky roofs in schools, closed libraries, disappearing jobs, broken swings, potholes in pavements and roads.  And spell it out in terms of household finances.  Because cuts in spending mean increased bus fares to get to work or to go to the shops.

It means parents being expected to dig deeper for fundraising activity by schools.  It means your granny having to dig into her meagre pension to pay more for her emergency call service and meals on wheels.  It means your child losing their free swimming session on a Saturday.  And it means your wee cousin leaving university with a decent degree and having no job to go to.

Sure, Scotland already controls most of these policy areas but it really doesn’t matter what we want to provide for our people if we don’t have any money to pay for it.  And that’s what voting no in 2014 will deliver.  You might want to live in a country that does all of this and more, but you can only have a chance of doing so in your lifetime by voting yes.

Vote no in 2014 and you get Tory or Labour cuts in 2015.  Vote no in 2014 and you and your family can look forward to years of doing without.  Vote no in 2014 for a dismal future and for our children – your children – to have little to look forward to.

And while we can’t say definitely what voting yes will result in – that will be for us to decide in the first elections after independence – we can assure you of one thing, with absolute certainty and clarity.

That Scotland’s future can be different.  And if you want even the possibility of a different future, that doesn’t involve your family being force fed a diet of austerity by either the Tories or Labour, then vote yes.

Stop manufacturing outrage and let’s channel some real anger instead

Joyce McMillan wrote with her usual acuity and passion on something which has troubled me also.  Effectively, she was expressing her concern that while Scotland fiddles, the world burns.  Scotland is too busy picking fluff from its constitutional navel – and the UK is about to join us – to notice that the rest of the world has caught a nasty cold which may or may not turn out to be the plague.

She’s right.  And there is evidence aplenty of this in operation.

This week, there has been more bankers-behaving-badly stuff.  Just like Groundhog Day, condemning bankers’ bonuses has become an annual event to look forward to.  With Antony Jenkins, the Barclays’ boss, announcing that he will waive his bonus, they have largely spoiled our sport.  And as we rush to tug our forelocks in gratitude, we can ignore the very nasty, possibly illegal allegations circulating about the nature of Barclays’ relationship with Qatar at the height of the financial crisis.

Now there is one.  All the big banks’ bosses have waived their entitlement except for Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Lloyds banking group.   Give it up gracefully, pal:  the longer you hold out, the louder the calls will be.  And frankly, your bank doesn’t need any more bad publicity, what with it being investigated in the Libor scandal and its shares being downgraded to “sell” in the last few days.

We’ve become rather inured to the banks’ excesses: how else to explain the low-key reaction to the big financial story of the week, that of the FSA deciding to limit liabilities for the interest swap scandal. I won’t bore you with the details, largely because I’m not sure I understand them.  But it goes something like this:  yet another cunning wheeze dreamed up by boys and girls far too bright for their own good to make money out of thin air goes wrong and costs lots of people a lot of money and ultimately for some, their businesses and their livelihoods.

Having been found out – again – efforts are now underway to protect the banks from the full-scale of their misdemeanours.  Everyone is a wee bit feart of the scale of this one – the FSA investigated 173 out of a possible 40,000 products sold and concluded 90% had been mis-sold – and trying to contain the fall-out.

Clearly, the banks are still viewed as too big to fail, even when they continue to play fast and loose with theirs and everyone else’s money.

This isn’t the first and it won’t be the last financial scandal.  Until we get someone – anyone – prepared to make reining in the worst excesses of the banks a top political priority and relentlessly beat the drum on behalf of the little people – consumers, taxpayers, pensioners and benefit recipients – every year, will see another calumny visited upon our economy.

And even though there is little chance of that happening anytime soon, why don’t we do something ourselves?  When, exactly, do we reach the point when as citizens, we say enough.  When do we allow ourselves to get angry? Individually, we can all lob a verbal grenade or two in their direction but why no proper displays of collective anger?

We are well capable at manufacturing outrage when it suits us – and it suits some of us very well.  This weekend’s commentary reflects on the reactions generated by two controversial political cartoons and the internet is a cacophony of anger and rancour from both sides (and even within the same sides) of the constitutional debate.  And in the day-to-day of the big stuff in people’s everyday lives, none of it matters a jot.

Part of the problem is a lack of political leadership on this matter – and as Joyce McMillan points out, on the really big issues of climate change and resource challenge.  Our politicians are in full-on avoidance mode.  The UK Government thinks it is playing a clever game, alternately wagging the finger, issuing idle threats and simpering gratitude, as the Chancellor did in response to Jenkins foregoing his annual bonus.  But we all see through it for what it is – the politics of pretending to be on our side when really being on theirs and their own.

The Scottish Government is strangely silent on a matter which would allow it to play its London grievance card legitimately and potentially to some effect.  Here are the big, nasty banks – global entities one and all – aided and abetted by a supine UK government which would rather protect their interests, than those of the tens of thousands of small and medium-sized Scottish businesses which are the backbone of our economy.  Another reason to vote yes, no?

UK Labour is at that stage of the electoral cycle where the objective is to offend no-one, so therefore avoids saying anything much about anything at all.  Meanwhile, Scottish Labour appears so incapable of coherent thought that it manages on the front page of the Sunday Herald to condemn the sums involved in public sector redundancy packages while on the next page object to the loss of a quango which paid its members for attendance.

Yet, its behaviour is symptomatic of the wider malaise.  Why get worked up about the big stuff that is costing public sector jobs, service cuts and savage welfare changes when there is a spat de jour to be pinned on the SNP about the consequences of austerity?  Frothing at the mouth over nothing very much for narrow political gain was never so easy nor pointless.  No vote on something as big as constitutional change is going to be won on the back of a tally of party political points scored.

The constitution matters, of course it does.  But so do other things and these other things make us all feel angry, impotent and bewildered.  Manufacturing outrage on the meaningless is a trite and dangerous political game.  Particularly when your country and her people need you – now, not after the referendum.

After all, we share more on common causes and values in relation to these bigger threats and maybe it’s time our politicians reflected that.  Maybe it’s time for them to lead us better on what unites rather than divides us.  Enable us to channel our anger at the appropriate targets collectively and it might even result in a more edifying and substantive constitutional debate all round.