Scotland, where the government actually seems to like people

By Bernadette Meaden
May 5, 2018

Living in England, where the hostile environment seems to extend not just to the Windrush generation but to anyone who is not privileged or prosperous, it is strange to think that just next door in Scotland, the government actually seems to like people.

The values of the Scottish government, and the policies it is pursuing, are increasingly diverging from those in England, and on current evidence, all for the good. Where the Westminster government seems to view much of the population with thinly disguised contempt, Holyrood shows every sign of wanting to support and enable all its people, with particular consideration for the most disadvantaged.

This different approach manifests itself in many ways, from the big – a whole new way of administering social security, to the small – sending out a baby box full of essentials to welcome every new baby.

At times the humane and generous tone of government in Scotland is so radically different from that in England it is hard to believe that two such contrasting approaches can exist within the UK. Take social security, for example.

The government in Westminster coldly dismisses reports of seriously ill and disabled people relying on foodbanks to survive. It mechanically repeats long-discredited mantras of making work pay while in-work poverty rises, and robustly defends offensive policies like the rape clause, or work capability assessments for people who are terminally ill.

Meanwhile, as Scotland recruits staff for its own new social security system, the Minister says, “Our system will be different. It will be rights based, with a right to independent advocacy for those who need it; fast-tracked arrangements and no arbitrary timescale for people with terminal illness; the right to have a supporter and the right to challenge decisions without having your money instantly cut." There is also an effort to mitigate the harshest Westminster cuts. 

And it’s not just the approach to the benefits system that is more generous and humane. In 2008 the Scottish government scrapped car parking charges at most Scottish hospitals. The then Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said "It's simply not fair to expect patients or visitors to have to pay when they come to hospital, when they may be suffering personal anxiety, stress or grief. Put bluntly, a car parking charge is often the last thing people need"  Then in 2011, the Scottish government joined Northern Ireland and Wales in abolishing prescription charges, removing a cost which can still be a big problem for people on a low income in England.

For young people, Scotland and the other devolved administrations also retain the Education Maintenance Allowance, which provides financial support to 16 to 19 year olds whose parents are not on a high income. In England we are left with a Bursary, to which access is far more limited. And a Scottish student attending university in Scotland will pay no tuition fees.

And for older people, as the BMA says, ‘A distinguishing characteristic of the Scottish system is… an entitlement for free personal care for those aged 65 years and over. This entitlement covers personal care in both the domiciliary and care home setting. Payments for personal care are universal and are not means tested.’ 

It probably helps that the Scottish government seems much less in thrall to the Daily Mail than its Westminster equivalent. The first time the Scottish Government used its powers to vary taxes from the rest of the UK, it raised income tax for the better off, increasing the Higher and Top Rates to 41 per cent and 46 per cent.  So far, the sky has not fallen in.

I sincerely hope that people in England will eventually look North and ask, ‘If they can have that in Scotland, why can’t we have that here? If social security claimants are not treated with conscious cruelty in Scotland, why do we tolerate it in England? If a hospital appointment or prescription medication is not an expense people worry about in Scotland, why should it be in England? If the people of Scotland can have a government that actually appears to like them, why can’t England?

Of course no government is perfect, and no doubt Scotland’s will fall short in many areas. But the generosity of spirit shown by Bute House is a welcome reminder that the mean and callous approach favoured by Downing Street is not the only option.

When will England demand better?


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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