Alex Neil is both proud and disappointed on the amount of left progress made.
When I was elected as a Member of the Scottish Parliament on 6 May 1999, I was elated. This was the first ever democratically elected Scottish Parliament. As a believer in social justice and independence, I was full of hope that our new Parliament would deliver for the people of Scotland. I wanted to prove that Jimmy Maxton, the ILP MP for Bridgeton in Glasgow from the 1920s till he died in 1946, was correct when he said: ‘A Scottish Parliament would deliver more in five years than Westminster would in twenty five years’.
Twenty years, later I am both proud of what the Scottish Parliament has delivered but also left with a deep sense of disappointment at our failure to deliver the kind of transformational change in the economic and social circumstances of the Scottish people to which I and my colleagues aspired. Part of the reason for our failures has been the restrictive nature of the devolution settlement, coupled with the imposition of austerity from Westminster. However, part of it is also down to our own lack of audacity as a Parliament. We have been far too timid and not nearly as ambitious or radical enough.
Here we are twenty years after the Parliament was established and still the pattern of land ownership in Scotland is almost identical to what it was in 1999. The land reform measures passed by the Parliament are welcome. They have made a difference, especially in those communities where community buyouts have taken place. However, there has not been the radical transformation in the pattern of land ownership and control that we should, by now, have delivered.
The levels of poverty and deprivation in Scotland are still at an unacceptable level and rising again. A quarter of our children are living in poverty. A fifth of our pensioners and most of our disabled community are struggling to make ends meet. The blame for this lies very much at Westminster’s door but as a Parliament, we have not been nearly pro-active enough in forcing change.
Although unemployment levels are at record lows, the quality of too many jobs in Scotland is inadequate, with low wages, zero-hour contracts, and poor prospects for promotion and career development. About 40% of jobs are either part-time or temporary or in (often forced) self-employment. We need to do much more to address these shortcomings.
We have a dire shortage of skilled labour in many industries. Every year we are about 7,000 people short of the skilled IT workers we need to develop this high-paying, modern industry. We have a shortage of about 12,000 skilled construction industry workers. We are short of social care workers, mainly because of low pay and poor career progression. There is a shortage of skilled people in the oil and gas sector as well as in the medical profession. We have a shortage of specialist teachers in many areas. We even have a shortage of about 5,000 long-distance lorry drivers.
These are all well paid jobs. These shortages represent a huge opportunity to redeploy people who are in low income, poor quality jobs to obtain enhanced levels of employment and income and at the same time ensure these industries can recruit the people they need. We need a Cabinet Secretary for Full Employment to tackle this issue as a matter of urgency.
We still are not doing nearly enough to diversify the Scottish economy, to make it fit for the twenty first century. For example, although recent progress has been made, our investment in research and development is nowhere near where it needs to be, compared to the likes of Finland and Norway. Our infrastructure investment levels are far better than they used to be but still way below the needs of a modern economy. I hope that the new National Investment Bank will deliver a step change in the scale of such investment as well as boost finance and credit facilities for small and medium-sized businesses. It cannot happen quickly enough.
We still have not abolished the council tax, one of the most unfair taxes ever invented. We need to instil new urgency into abolishing the council tax and replacing with a much fairer income-based local services tax. We need to introduce a land tax to incentivise new investment in our most abundant, under-used natural resource and thereby help grow the Scottish economy.
Therefore, there is much more to do. However, without the added bonus of being independent we will continue to under-achieve as a Parliament and as a nation. That is why we need a clear strategy for achieving full self-government. We also need to re-think the relationship an independent Scotland should have with Europe. My own view is that ‘Independence in Europe’ should be re-defined. Instead of an independent Scotland seeking to re-join the European Union, we should instead join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). That way we get the benefits of free movement and the single market without the downside of being in an increasingly centralised EU.
There is a huge and exciting agenda for the Scottish Parliament to pursue in its third decade, only a small part of which I have outlined here. Let us deliver on Jimmy Maxton’s mantra and show the Scottish people that the Scottish Parliament is delivering for them.
Alex Neil is the (SNP) MSP for Airdrie and Shotts.
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