Neil Mackay: In these grim times, neither Holyrood nor Westminster offers vision

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MANY of Scotland’s leading political voices, and their cheerleaders in the media, seem to have forgotten that we’re living through a pandemic.

They obsess on the inner workings of the SNP while the country – and the world, evidently – falls to pieces around them. It’s less fiddling while Rome burns, and more throwing a Great Gatsby style party so nobody can hear the earthquake happening outside. It’s a convenient blind for a dearth of ideas, and a pitiful excuse for national debate in a mature democracy.

Those with the loudest, and often dumbest, voices in Scotland are dangerously myopic – ploughing their own petty furrows in the hope of power and pound signs. But their cares aren’t the cares of real people. Speak to anyone outside the absurd political-media bubble, and you’ll hear only about pandemic and recovery. You won’t hear about the SNP’s civil wars or the Alex Salmond saga; ordinary folk don’t care. You’ll hear people frightened for their futures and their children’s futures in a world that’s facing ruin – and angry with a bunch of chattering elites doing nothing to build a better society but argue over the arcana of SNP internal politics.

People are right to be scared and angry. We’re now – potentially, it must be stressed – on the road to some sort of slow, hesitating, way out of Covid. But the chances of exiting from this pandemic as a better society than we went in look ever-decreasing. The smart, if nihilistic, money would be on us emerging worse, in fact.

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From the very start of the pandemic, the coronavirus was astonishingly adept at revealing the stark inequalities of the society we’ve built so far – and as we began facing up to this dreadful virus a year ago, there was much talk of creating a new and fairer world on the other side. That now looks like childish optimism – or rather like hopes strangled by a political and media class incapable of lifting its eyes beyond mud-slinging and point-scoring.

Even if we set aside the current obsessions on the SNP’s civil wars, which will mean nothing to the history books when it comes to the pandemic, there’s been little or no vision in this country despite the agony and misery going on in homes around Scotland. Independence or unionism as political concepts are not visions of a better world – they’re simply empty boxes which need some sort of vision put inside them.

Perhaps at the start of the pandemic there was a slim chance that politicians would act – that the media would spur them on – and historians would then one day be able to look back on the pandemic and see it as a moment of great change and hope. Today, though, it’s clear that our political and media class is doing everything possible to fail to contribute to any vision of a better world.

Just look at the evidence of recent weeks. One in six new Universal Credit claimants has to skip meals – those claimants, of course, are folk who were employed a while ago, and have now had their lives crushed by the pandemic. Between March and November last year, the number of people on Universal Credit surged from 3 to 5.8 million.

This is human tragedy on a grand scale. Yet daily, all we hear in Scotland is endless obsession on SNP juvenilia.

Can we exit this pandemic as a better society than we went in?

People who had jobs recently are now staring down the barrel of homelessness. People who are homeless now are dying. During the recent snows, pictures emerged which should shame this country: images of 200 people queuing at a soup kitchen in Glasgow in freezing temperatures.

During Covid, the rich got richer, and the poor poorer. Ordinary workers – folk who keep this country running – are surviving on loans charging up to 1333%, because they’re too poor to afford any other option. Supply teachers face food banks. The number of households plunged into destitution has more than doubled – that’s more than half a million people. Listen to the word: it’s not “poverty”, which is horrific enough in itself, it’s “destitution”. And of course, all this happens while the UK Government engages in a circus of crony capitalism, offering pandemic contracts to friends, contacts, and Conservative Party donors.

These horror stories are from Scotland and the rest of Britain – think what’s happening in the world’s poorest countries. We’ll reap a whirlwind from this nationally and internationally. There’s no question the crash of 2008 wrought the political upheavals we’ve all lived through recently from Brexit to Trump. What comes after the pandemic?

Neither Holyrood nor Westminster offers vision. The SNP has published plans for major investment in infrastructure – and that’s to be welcomed – but it’s simply not transformative in its vision. We can’t just get some people back into some even lower-paying jobs, we need a restructuring of the economy and society, and the pandemic offers the chance to do that. Miss this opportunity and there won’t be another one until another dreadful event hits the world.

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Where’s the debate about a national strategy to end homelessness? Where’s the debate about mass job and wealth creation through a real – not a phoney – green new deal? Where’s the debate about root and branch welfare reform, changing the current system from one of pain and humiliation to one which supports people and aids them to improve their lives? The best there’s been on this came from Nicola Sturgeon with some discussion around a universal basic income – which again should be roundly applauded – but it’s so far down the agenda as to be irrelevant. Where’s the debate around real equitable tax reform? Saying independence or the Union is essential to recovery isn’t good enough. In fact, it’s meaningless.

In the coming months, it’ll be those with the vision to make either independence or the Union a viable vehicle for real change and real recovery, which helps real people, who’ll win the day.

Failure should not be permitted as an option. However, it’s hard to envisage Scotland’s political class capable of rising to the challenge, or a partisan pack of media commentators capable of holding either side to account for the benefit of the public. As always, it’ll be ordinary people who suffer.

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