Best Place in the World

We want Scotland to be
the best place in the world to grow up. A phrase often uttered by politicians and parroted by others when talking about an ambition for children being cared for by the state. It’s a phrase that reminds me of that other meaningless phrase that once greeted visitors at Glasgow airport. Scotland, the best wee country in the world. When a mile down the road you would be confronted by the very real images of some of the worst structural poverty existent of any so-called ‘advanced’ economy. Both smack of exceptionalism and are far removed from the reality on the ground in a Scotland that is a long way from being either. Anyway, the fact of the matter is this. All children need certain things to thrive. After that, cultural norms, customs, religious beliefs, and other such factors will normally influence what a person deems as ‘best’ in any given society. Therefore, the best place in the world to grow up just can’t exist. However, a good enough place for all children to live in most certainly can.

Best place in the world to grow up isn’t the first such phrase to be used when talking about children. The Getting it right for every child policy is now 15 years old. Yet, the list of those we didn’t get it right for during that time is long and includes unnecessary and avoidable deaths. These are our Bairns, another policy document published in 2008. Since then, the so-called corporate parent has collectively failed many of their bairns. So much so, that a review of the entire care system was deemed necessary. The list goes on and on. It all serves to remind that Scotland is often very good at coming up with ideas, but when it comes to the actual execution, making the jump from ambition to implementation, that chasm seems never to be fully bridged. That ambition gets lost in the dirty, muddy, reality of badly run systems, calculated political folly, and the class-riven setup that is British society. 

Why does this phrase stick in my throat any more than other such meaningless phrase? It’s because it smacks of exceptionalism. It’s loudly declaring that Scotland is going to lead the world in childcare and parents around the world will look to Scotland as a place they wish to bring their child up. Imagine, those billionaires will be sending their well-heeled offspring to a Scottish State School, because there would be no better place. Not likely is it. Because it’s just hokum. Such is the distance from the actual reality of a Scotland riven with poverty and class division. A bit of humility and honesty is what is needed. Of course people want Scotland to be a great place in the world to grow up, just as we want the whole world to be a great place for both children and adults alike. It doesn’t need saying. It’s like asking someone with limited income if they want lifetime financial security. Duh. 

Why not just start with the simple ambition of getting it good enough? Because good enough, would be, well, good enough. Then and only then could you raise that ambition to something that sets you apart from other, less good places. Because that’s what that phrase does, it takes the head into the clouds, far from the reality on the ground, where poverty is evident as soon as some children wake up in their substandard housing, eat a breakfast that might not give them what they need for the day ahead, wrap themselves in clothes that could be useless against the weather, head off and look around at the brutality of an area devoid of opportunities and full of glaring indications of where they are on the socio-economic ladder. Let’s face it, even the grey, uniform architecture batters them with the facts of life. Compare that to the lives of those at the other end of the socio-economic scale. It demonstrates how meaningless that phrase is.

Don’t believe me? Let’s have a quick, wee look at two examples of where Scotland actually is in relation to being the best place in the world to grow up.

The 2020 European Drug report notes that the UK has the second highest drug deaths per million across Europe. We know Scotland will swallow up a disproportionate number of those deaths. Some of them will be teenagers. Some of them will have been ‘looked after’ by the State. Not much to crow about there. In fact, it is a crying shame and one that inaction on the political front is wholly responsible for (other places have significantly cut drug deaths with political action). The media too must take its share of the blame for the way people with dependency issues have been demonised and disrespected for so long. They all should hang their heads in shame and work tirelessly to change both the situation on the ground and the attitudes they have helped to shape in society. 

Let’s also take a look at poverty (which can often cause the trauma that leads to drug use). The 2020 JRF report notes that around a million people in Scotland are in relative poverty. Also pointing out that interim reduction targets are likely to be missed. That’s some proportion for a resource-rich, sought-out tourist destination with a relatively skilled workforce and a stable democracy. It is shameful that these targets will not be met. Whilst there are arguments for independence/more devolution etc. The reality is that much money, time, and effort has been wasted or badly invested. This is not the fault of those in poverty, but it does ensure that the likelihood of Scotland being the best place to grow up remains a distant dream. A recent drop in foodbank use has been accredited to the provision of a 10-pound child payment for low-income families. That shows just how easily some of that poverty could have been alleviated. Doubling the payment months ago would have done even more. Yet, the Government waited until their conference to ‘reveal’ they intend to do so. As I said, calculated politics that will see people continue to exist in unnecessary poverty. And anyway, 8,455 food parcels between April and September of this year is still a million miles from being the best place in the world for children to grow up.

It was 2012 that the Scottish Government asked parents and organisations; what would make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up?

Here we are, some 10 years later, with what? Improvements in some areas, stagnation in others, and even some backward steps taken. Added to that, we have the new National Care Service being touted for both adults and children, a consultation on Education reform, a covid response that has left a lot of questions to be answered in the upcoming investigation, and a Conservative Government that has hammered those who can least afford it for over a decade. All of which will mean (more) re-organisation and a continuation of the status quo for at least the next few years. Best place in the world? Most internet lists don’t even have the UK in the top twenty. I mean, who are those tasked with managing the support for children in care? Answer -Social Workers. A recent Unison report noted that 90% felt that decisions were resource as opposed to needs-led. Doesn’t give much confidence, does it? After all, meeting needs is the main aim of bringing up children. Why are politicians so bombastic in their outpourings? Why do organisations and the commentariat parrot such nonsense? They could call it out for what it is. Pie in the sky. But not just as an act of political point-scoring.

Now, I am no pessimist. I am not denigrating the ‘motherland’ or serving any political agenda other than that of my own social-democratic belief in a more equal society. I believe – as there always has been – that many, many people are doing fine work in trying to counter the impact of political failure across generations and political divides. I involve myself in some such work and see that progress is being made in a number of areas. It’s just that it isn’t enough, it isn’t quick enough, and it may never be enough unless there is a major shift in the way in which the country is run. That – as the arguments go – could be independence, but it could as readily be a change in the UK Government to one that truly levels up instead of bastardising that concept as the current administration are doing and as David Cameron did with the concept of a ‘big society’ that served only to lay the path for a mammoth increase in foodbanks and a reliance on charity for those either in low-paid or out-of-work. However, does anyone believe Labour are the party to do that in its current setup? Me neither.

Many innovative ways to address poverty and trauma have appeared over the last few years. Some would be amazing initiatives to have in a more equal society. They would address the generational and structural hangover of a vastly unequal society. As things are, they are fighting against the tide, battling hard against the odds. Because the task is such, that these projects, with so much potential for a society that actually had leveled up, will never be able to change the politics of division as they relate to class, location, education, colour, gender etc.. Won’t ever remedy the true causes of fuel poverty, dearth of opportunity, wage disparity, cruel social security system etc.. Can only hope to have a small influence on the environmental impact of poverty on the children of today and tomorrow. I ask that those responsible stop with this best place in the world nonsense. Everyone should drop that immediately and accept that it actually does no good to speak thus. Frankly – knowing the truth – I find it embarrassing. Sometimes, we need to bluntly speak the truth when we hear such things. So, from me, Best place in the world? my arse (with thanks to Jim Royle). The truth is, Scotland is nowhere near good enough for many of the children growing up today.

Comments (9)

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  1. florian albert says:

    The campaign to brand Scotland as ‘The Best Small Country in the World’ was launched by the Labour Executive led by Jack McConnell. It was ditched by Alex Salmond in one of his first actions on becoming First Minister in 2007.
    While it was running, the economist, John Kay, pointed out that such praise should be given by visitors leaving Scotland, rather than by Scots to visitors as they arrived.
    The most significant thing about that embarrassing episode is that nobody in Scotland appeared to be embarrassed by it.

    David Anderson refers to his own ‘social democratic belief in a more equal society’. The obstacle to the creation of a more equal society is the unwillingness of those Scots who are prospering to accept any change in the status quo which would leave them materially less well off.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Maybe Jack should have taken a leaf out of Carlsberg’s advertising handbook and marketed Scotland as ‘Probably the Best Small Country in the World’.

      And why on earth would anyone in their right mind ‘accept any change in the status quo which would leave them materially less well off’?

      1. Wul says:

        “And why on earth would anyone in their right mind ‘accept any change in the status quo which would leave them materially less well off’?”

        Maybe it could be demonstrated to them that they are less likely to be a victim of crime if wealth were shared more equally? Or that their kids are less likely to fall in with “a bad lot” at school (the big middle class fear) if “the bad lot” had a better start in life and greater opportunity?

        I know lots of middle class people with multiple rental properties ( “it’s my pension” ) who are living off the labour of less financially secure workers. If these middle class Scots knew that they had a guaranteed good, secure pension and high-quality care into old age maybe they would be less desperate to accumulate huge piles of cash for their dotage.

        God knows there is enough evidence and research to show that greater equality of wealth lifts everyone’s happiness and security.
        I think the tendency of rich folk to blame the poor for their own poverty is a manifestation of deep-seated discomfort with their wealth relative to poorer neighbours. “Blame the Poor” is a story you can tell yourself to escape responsibility towards your fellow man.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Precisely, Wull; people would be more likely to accept changes to the status quo if you could demonstrate that those changes would leave them materially better off – e.g. less likely to be a victim of crime, delinquency, hardship, etc. – and not just morally better off. Everyone except the righteous elect tends to prioritise their material comfort over ideals like freedom, equality, and justice, and are unwilling to sacrifice the former for the latter. It’s the impoverishment and desperation of those who’ll be materially dispossessed by the global crises into which we’re currently collapsing, and the ‘huge upwelling of the impredictable’ that will flow from that desperation, that that will drive the revolution, not bourgeois idealism.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, you do realise that the UK managed mass-mobilisation during two world wars last century? Where people accepted changes to the status quo which left them materially (sometimes fatally) worse off?

            All throughout history and through various cultures some people have chosen lives of less material comfort, from monasticism to militarism to civil asceticism to elite sports training, and there are many back-to-nature or living-lightly movements around the world today.

            These typically involve some model of good life philosophy. The one point I would make about the article, which I find entirely reasonable, is that relative (not absolute) poverty may be recast in terms of sustainable living (within the ‘doughnut’ of Kate Raworth’s economic model) whereby excess and luxury are once more reviled. A lot of effort (not least advertising) goes towards skewing public imagination towards excessive consumption, presumably in the fear that without it, people would fail to be enticed.

            A final observation is that some ideologies require (possibly a majority of) losers in society. These ideologies would reject policies which made society more generally prosperous but flattened the distinctions (and in fact, much of British history has featured just those ideologies and political systems, though not uncontested). These often make use of the ‘just world’ hypothesis, whereby riches are represented as reward for some kind of virtue, even in (especially in?) times of vast political corruption, which is obviously fallacious, therefore needs to be supported by hypocrisy and cant, British cultural specialities.

          2. Mons Meg says:

            Are you suggesting that the British population would have been materially better off under Nazi rule and that they acted against their material interests by mobilising against it? Didn’t it mobilise during both world wars precisely to defend the status quo?

            And, yes, some people have chosen excellence over material comfort through the practice of forms of ‘the good life’ such as monasticism, militarism, asceticism, elitism, etc.; forms of life which are often parasitical on the material production of society generally. But we’re not taking about those Lumpenproletarians who have been lost to socially useful production but who are nevertheless dependent on it for the satisfaction of their material needs; we’re talking about the ordinary, unexceptional people who beaver away in our workplaces to produce our commonwealth.

  2. Wul says:

    That sort of exceptionalism “The Best Place in the World…..” is a product of the marketisation of every aspect of our lives including children’s social care.

    You see this bullshit machismo in job adverts for local authorities and child-care charities: “Operating in the highly-charged world of corporate double-speak, We are seeking a highly motivated, thrusting, ambitious individual. You must be able to work under pressure, deal with tight deadlines, model excellence….as we aim to deliver the best-est, biggest, fanciest blah, blah, blah in the world”

    What about just being good enough? “We are looking for reliable, caring, diligent, honest people who will serve the public (who pay your wages) in a friendly, open and respectful manner”

  3. Niemand says:

    ‘The list goes on and on. It all serves to remind that Scotland is often very good at coming up with ideas, but when it comes to the actual execution, making the jump from ambition to implementation, that chasm seems never to be fully bridged’.

    I think the problem is are they good ideas or good sounding announcements? An idea is not a slogan and policy is not an idea as Robin McAlpine points out, ‘it is a set of implementable actions and every individual action matters or it is likely the policy will fail at the implementation stage’. I think the Scottish government is especially guilty of seeing an idea or even just a slogan as policy of itself, and it really is not. Hence all the crowd pleasing slogans followed by partial or total failure to implement then as ‘policies’.

    McAlpine’s analysis of the SNP’s failures could be applied more generally and his assessment of the way things are announced is hard to argue with: ‘It should only take place at the point at which concept and purpose are nailed down or it will cause confusion’.

    And the killer bit: ‘If you create a policy development process in the image of an announcement development process you will create irreconcilable problems. You start seeing what should be the ‘concept’ stage as the ‘justification’ stage. Rather than producing an action which fixes a problem you create an action that justifies a statement.’

    An action that justifies a statement. Nicola Sturgeon is exceptionally good at making aspirational announcements but again and again that is all they are. There is nothing behind them, no plan. Referendum by end 2023 now? So what’s the plan to make that happen?

    Very thoughtful article and though it talks about the UK government failings that will have impact and Labour’s inadequacies, it avoids the elephant in the room: those elected representatives of the party in power in Scotland for 14 years.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Yep! I’ve written enough policies in my time to know that, in addition to statements of principle, a policy needs to have an action plan that outlines the practical steps that will be taken to enact those principles, just when each step will be taken and by whom, how progress towards the enactment of those principles will be monitored and evaluated, and how and from where the costs of implementing the action plan will be met. If such policies exist in the republic, they’re hardly being readily offered up to its citizens for scrutiny. All we seem to get are soundbites and slogans.

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