An ideological critique of A Fairer Scotland Action Plan

We’ve looked at the Fairer Scotland Action Plan from the perspective of “will this actually make a difference” and “is this anything new?” How can we look more critically, at some of the underlying ideologies at work? In her analysis of a 1988 policy document A New Life for Urban Scotland, Hastings argues that ministerial forewords should be a particular focus for our critical analysis as they encapsulate contemporary political thought. Hastings did very close discourse analysis of the text; here I am going to do something sloppier (I don’t have the time to go line-by-line through the ministerial foreword to A Fairer Scotland) but using similar intellectual insights. I’m going to look at two sections of text from the foreword and then link these to Action 36.


Our first section of text is from the opening paragraph where the “prize” is:


“by 2030, a fair, smart, inclusive Scotland, where everyone can feel at home, where fair work helps businesses to thrive and create jobs, where poverty rates are amongst the lowest in Europe.”


This is very laudable – poverty rates among the lowest in Europe is a very challenging target given the UK (and Scotland within the UK) are in the top half of countries with the highest income poverty rates in the EU. And to deliver this with thriving businesses AND jobs. A lot to promise. This list creates what we call in discourse analysis an equivalence – it does not prioritise any one thing, it just lists things as being equivalent (the same). It is therefore not a big leap to suggest that the Scottish Government ideologically believe that work is the best way to tackle poverty (thriving businesses, jobs and poverty are equivalent).* There is good evidence that this is indeed the case. However, analysis for the whole of the UK from the Office of Budget Responsibility demonstrate the structural challenges of doing this. To take one example, 13 per cent of people over 55 receive Employment and Support Allowance benefit because they are disabled in some way. It will be very difficult to lift people like this out of poverty just through work – they will find it very difficult to access suitable jobs in the contemporary economy.


Similarly, elsewhere the Action Plan identifies increasing the quality of jobs, and their pay, as a key focus for effort. Again, this is very positive, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified this as a key area for action in tackling poverty in their anti-poverty strategy. But there is a very difficult balancing act the Scottish Government have to play between helping create “thriving businesses” (who would want to minimise pay to maximise profits) and mandating companies to pay their workers more.


Later on in the Ministerial Foreword it is stated that:


“What we really want to do is change deep seated, multigenerational, deprivation, poverty and inequalities. One of the key ways we will do this is through eradicating child poverty. We have set out long-term targets to reduce and ultimately end child poverty.”


When I do my poverty rant at you later in semester, you’ll see how problematic this is. Now, there is evidence that experience of poverty, particularly long-term poverty, in childhood makes you at greater risk of poverty later in life. Yet, like the very troubling UK Government Troubled Families Programme it puts a lot of emphasis on a group of people who are actually not the core group of families that experience poverty. Most families, and individuals, experience poverty on a short-term basis, cycling in-to and out-of poverty, through a revolving door of low-paid, low-skilled, temporary work. This is not “multi-generational”, “deep-seated” poverty, it is just the reality of the modern labour market in the UK and Scotland. This is focusing effort (and blame) on the people who experience poverty, not the wider social structures that cause poverty.


This crops up again in one of the later actions:


36 – “We will take action to reduce youth unemployment by 40% by 2021: we will increase the provision and uptake of vocational qualifications … Key to our success is encouraging secondary schools and colleges to develop high quality and productive partnerships with employers, delivering a connected and labour market relevant offer for young people.”


The first section of this repeats this approach of blaming individuals for wider structural problems, in this case youth unemployment. This time, it is young people who need to go and get more vocational qualifications if they are to get jobs, it’s not the role of employers to employ young people based on the skills they have acquired in school and train them to be effective employees and advance within their organisations. Now, to be fair on the Scottish Government, I have left the second part of this action in, which shows that they are keen to work with employers to make sure skills are relevant for the labour market. But the focus is still on young people developing skills, and the state providing the training. Young people need to train themselves to suit employers, and the only role for the state is to provide training for large companies who employ people. This ideologically closes off other arguments, such as employers being mandated to provide training (the UK has one of the lowest rates of investment in research and development in the OECD), or that education might have other ends rather than just teaching 17-year-olds how to be good plasterers (if they’re men) or hairdressers and beauticians (if they’re women).


* here we could also suggest that this sentence leave a logic implicit that we are expected to understand: these things are automatically linked, and to suggest otherwise you are being stupid. Yet, as I discussed in the lecture on my mate Neil Librul, this is exactly the sort of logic that is implied by neo-liberal social and economic policy. It’s the economy, stupid. 

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