Scotland: the threat of a good example?

By Bernadette Meaden
November 19, 2020

In recent days devolution has once again become a contentious issue, as  Brexiteer politicians in London, without any apparent sense of irony, proclaimed the benefits of being part of a political union, and incomprehension at any desire to take back control from Westminster. 

Is it simply a belief in unionism, and the usual party political differences which produces this antipathy towards the governments in Holyrood and the Welsh Sennedd, or is there more to it? Could it be that the devolved administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff are providing models of leadership and governance, in comparison to which the current incumbents of Downing Street do not fare well? In the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 61 per cent of people said they trusted the Scottish Government to work in Scotland’s best interests, compared with 15 per cent who said they trusted the UK Government to do so. When Boris Johnson calls devolution a disaster, one has to ask – a disaster for whom? Looking at Scotland from a neglected and disrespected Northern England, the benefits of devolution look increasingly clear. And this, in a rather roundabout way, makes me think of Nicaragua.

In 1985 Oxfam published a report on Nicaragua, subtitled The Threat of A Good Example? Oxfam said the Nicaraguan government was “exceptional” in the strength of its commitment to improving the condition of the people, especially the poorest, extending healthcare and achieving very high levels of literacy.

The United States, however, decided this could not be allowed to continue, and set out to destroy Nicaragua’s Sandinista government using covert and overt methods. It may seem odd that a superpower like the USA would pay so much attention to a tiny neighbour which posed no military or economic threat – but as Oxfam suggested, perhaps it was the fact that whilst many US citizens lived in fear of needing medical treatment they couldn’t afford, the Sandinistas were giving even the poorest people access to health care. They were building an alternative to America’s free market capitalism that looked effective, fair, and popular. And as Noam Chomsky explained, "The weaker and poorer a country is, the more dangerous it is as an example. If a tiny, poor country... can succeed in bringing about a better life for its people, some other place that has more resources will ask, 'why not us?'"

Now, admittedly the government in Holyrood is not implementing revolutionary socialism, but since devolution successive Scottish governments have, within the powers available to them, diverged from the Westminster approach in way that often places a higher priority on the welfare of Scotland’s people. There are many examples, varying in scale and significance, but here are just a few:

  • A free box of baby essentials to help new parents at the start of every child’s life.
  • The Scottish Child Payment, whereby low-income families with a child under six can now apply for £10 per child per week, with no limits on the number of eligible children. (No two child limit and accompanying rape clause).
  • Free sanitary products available to all school pupils and students
  • Free university tuition for Scottish students.
  • Free car parking at hospitals
  • The abolition of prescription charges
  • Free personal and nursing care for everyone who needs it, regardless of age.
  • Free bus travel for over-60s and disabled people, to be extended to under-19s next year
  • Mitigation of some of the UK government’s social security cuts
  • A Young Carer Grant supporting eligible young carers with a payment of £300.
  • A Carers Allowance Supplement which provided carers with an extra £452 in 2019, compared to carers in the rest of the UK.

There is more, but we can see from these examples that in comparison to  the policies pursued by successive UK Conservative governments, the welfare of ‘ordinary’ people seems to be a higher priority. And it’s not just Scotland. The Welsh Labour government has also abolished prescription fees and hospital parking charges. In Northern Ireland, politicians negotiated a very considerable mitigation of the social security cuts and reforms which have caused so much suffering to people on low incomes in England.

This difference in priorities and values was vividly illustrated in recent weeks, when it became apparent that children in low income families would need free school meals over the holidays. All three of the devolved administrations responded positively long before the government in Westminster grudgingly conceded, despite intense moral and political pressure.

Perhaps what really worries Conservative politicians is that sooner or later, the people of England might look at the fairer, kinder policies adopted in the devolved nations of the UK and ask, “Why not us?”. Perhaps devolution is producing the threat of a good example.


© 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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