Ian Swanson: Riot-free Scots are unequal too

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ALEX Salmond found himself under fire after he took to the airwaves to voice his irritation that last week’s urban unrest was being described as “UK riots” when no Scottish cities had been affected.

“We know we have a different society in Scotland,” the First Minister said. “Until such time we do have a riot in Scotland, what we are seeing are riots in London and across English cities.”

He was accused of gloating and trying to make political capital out of the situation. His comments were variously described by opponents as “small-minded and embarrassing” (Labour’s Iain Gray), “parochial and petty” (Tory David Mundell) and “the worst face of nationalism” (Lib Dem Willie Rennie).

Mr Salmond claimed references to “UK riots” could spark copycat violence in Scotland.

And aides said his intervention was also intended to protect Scotland’s £11 billion-a-year tourism industry after some foreign governments warned their citizens that visiting Britain was dangerous.

Trying to prevent the riots spreading north of the border and offering reassurance to tourists heading for the Edinburgh Festival are surely worthwhile aims, though going on radio and TV to highlight the absence of rioting in Scotland is rather a hostage to fortune.

It remains true, however, that so far Scotland has not been hit by the violence, arson and looting which erupted in London and so many English cities.

So how true is Mr Salmond’s claim that Scotland is a “different society”?

The reasons for the riots are complex, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at least part of the problem is a growing sense of alienation among communities where young people can’t get jobs, youth centres are being closed and there are perhaps also tensions between the police and ethnic minorities.

Scotland is no stranger to unemployment and poverty and public spending cuts. It might be argued there is a difference of degree. But there is no room for complacency.

And Scotland has its own distinctive problems in the shape of sectarian violence and related troubles, ranging from death threats against prominent football figures to increased domestic abuse on Old Firm match days.

Ministers also frequently bemoan Scotland’s “booze and blade culture” of heavy drinking and knife-carrying which they hope minimum pricing of alcohol will help to tackle.

Some might say the whole reason for having a Scottish Parliament is the fact Scotland is a “different society” – why bother with devolution if all the issues and solutions are the same throughout the UK?

But there is also arguably a different political culture in Scotland which devolution has allowed to flourish.

It is often said Scotland is more left-wing than England, with social attitude surveys showing, for example, that people in Scotland are more likely than people south of the border to agree that “Government should redistribute income” – by a margin of 43 per cent to 34 per cent. Just over two-fifths (41 per cent) of Scots say it is wrong that people with higher incomes can buy better health care, compared with less than a quarter (24 per cent) of people in England.

Earlier this year, academics argued the differences in attitudes north and south of the border were easily exaggerated. They said the latest survey showed the gap was relatively small and the “left-wing” view often fell short of a majority in Scotland. Support among Scots for increased taxes and government spending, for instance, fell from 54 per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent last year.

But the fact remains both of Scotland’s biggest parties are left of centre and the Tories have been effectively flat-lining since the advent of devolution.

Successive Scottish governments have steered a different course from Westminster in key policy areas, choosing not to go down the Blairite path of city academies and foundation hospitals, introducing free personal care while the UK Government rejected it as unaffordable, pledging to maintain free higher education while fees of up to £9000 a year are being brought in south of the border.

The emphasis on equality and public provision is an important balance, especially in difficult economic times.

A book that Ed Miliband is said to have put on the summer reading list for Labour MPs argues there is a clear relationship between greater social inequality and increased violence and, more positively, between greater equality and better health and more trust between people.

In The Spirit Level, respected researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett say if Britain were to become as equal as the world’s four most equal rich countries (Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland) trust could be expected to increase by two-thirds, mental illness could be halved and homicide rates fall by 75 per cent.

Inequality and a sense of hopelessness do not excuse rioting but they may go some way to explaining it. Scotland might like to think it is a more equal society, but there is a long way to go.

More than 200,000 children still live in poverty and Sir Fred Goodwin still has his massive pension.