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A commitment to reducing inequality is buried in guff

Fifteen years ago today Winnie Ewing convened - or in her words "reconvened" - the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament.

I remember watching it relayed via a giant screen on The Mound in Edinburgh, fresh out of university and naturally caught up in the excitement of it all. You could almost feel the centre of power shift from Westminster to the top of the Royal Mile.

Thinking back to those heady constitutional days, I'm also struck by how many of the arguments deployed in favour of devolution have now been transferred - often by the same people - to independence. For example, the orthodox view of cultural commentators and civic Scotland in the late 1990s was a devolved Scottish Parliament would protect a distinctly social democratic ethos and lead to a new politics committed to growing the economy and reducing inequality.

Much of this was quixotic, overstating the transformative effective of constitutional change and underrating the impact of radical policy-making. Nevertheless it was a sincerely held view, a comforting mythology that legitimised the whole devolution experiment.

Fifteen years on and the same logic pervades the case for independence: only full sovereignty, the argument runs, can protect Scottish social democracy (itself a myth), break from the Westminster system and, most prominently, grow the economy and tackle inequality. But as Gerry Hassan argues in a new book, Caledonia Dreaming, although egalitarianism is a deeply embedded ideal in Scotland, over the past decade and a half it has never tangibly manifested itself in terms of political will or a comprehensive policy programme.

This is all the more curious given the Scottish Parliament - contrary to Nationalist depictions - had several levers with which it could have tackled inequality, particularly in its first decade when the block grant increased well beyond inflation. Income tax could have been varied, property tax reformed and education (school and university) restructured to maximise social mobility.

As I've observed before, the Scottish commitment to reducing inequality is largely rhetorical; the policy discussion comes close to being vacuous, simply recycling cliches and fleshed-out platitudes. Analysis published a few days ago by the Scottish Government was a case in point. Revealing Scotland (like the UK) is a very unequal place, in response the First Minister said the figures were "alarming" (was he really surprised?) and, predictably, the way to deal with it was not through boring things like policies, but rather "an urgent need for Scotland to have the powers of independence".

There followed the usual guff about an independent Scotland becoming the 14th-richest country in the world and then flannel about Scotland's poorest households not having "the income needed to gain the wealth - and security - that c omes from owning property or having a private pension". "Unless action is taken soon," added Mr Salmond, "this cycle of deprivation will continue, with more children continuing to be born into poverty."

At no point, of course, did the First Minister articulate how the policy levers delivered by independence would be used to reduce inequality, nor did he explain why existing levers hadn't already been utilised to that end. The reference to "owning property" was also curious given his government has made much of ending the right-to-buy (surely the best way of enabling poorer families to acquire property) while paradoxically adopting George Osborne's help-to-buy.

Scotland, meanwhile, is not a uniquely unequal part of the UK. In a forthcoming book, Small Nations In A Big World, the academics Michael Keating and Malcolm Harvey note inequality grew rapidly in the 1980s along with that in the rest of the UK, while current Scottish levels are roughly in line with the UK average. They also observe that while there are differences in public opinion between Scotland and rUK, they're not "big enough on their own to underpin a radically different policy trajectory".

Rather, it is Scotland's view of itself that has changed since the 1980s (indeed it's an irony that as Scotland has dovetailed with the UK economically and socially, it's diverged electorally). Scotland, as Keating and Harvey put it, "was thus discursively reconstructed as a haven of social democracy", even while it - along with England - moved to the right in the late 20th and early 21st century.

Keating also alludes to Quebec, which - despite the loss of two referendums on sovereignty - managed to resist the growing social inequality in the rest of Canada. It did so by deploying its provincial powers, which rather undermines the SNP argument Scotland could only do the same with the "full powers" of independence. What better way to present Scotland as a "progressive beacon" than making it the most equal part of the UK?

One ends up reaching the conclusion that tackling inequality has simply become a debating point, rather than a sincere aim. Some months ago, for example, I challenged one senior SNP figure about how he planned to buck the transAtlantic trend and reduce inequality while keeping taxes low. "Well," he replied, "we certainly won't make it any worse." I was bowled over by the lack of ambition.

But then many Nationalists (and, of course, Unionists) have so little to say about seminal texts like that currently topping the charts by the French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital In The 21st Century. I understand senior Labour figures - including Ed Miliband - are presently working their way through a tome as long as the Scottish Government's White Paper; I wonder how many Scottish ministers have it by their bedside?

And even if some do, such texts tend to get cherry-picked rather than properly digested. Joseph Stiglitz's book The Price Of Inequality, which ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the subject, suffered this fate, its conclusion that inequality acted as a drag on growth zealously taken up by some SNP figures while its conclusions for action (involving a "comprehensive attack" on corporate vested interests) were blithely ignored.

Of course one book, even one as compelling as Piketty's, is not going to become a game-changer, but it at least opens up space for discussion of how to tackle inequality rather than just talk about it, something that - strikingly - is happening much more at Westminster than in Edinburgh. Even in the US, where inequality has rarely impinged upon political discourse, Piketty's book has become a best seller.

So while modern Scotland is awash with rhetoric about inequality, whole swathes of policy debate which might actually reduce it are off limits: income tax simply isn't discussed (even the Scottish left, most notably the Common Weal, maintains the fiction that taxes needn't rise), nor is the impact of the independent education sector in stark contrast to a lively debate south of the Border.

As Keating and Harvey conclude in Small Nations, self-government is no longer a matter of merely gaining sovereignty, "but of elaborating and managing one's own social and economic project". And, as the experience of other small states shows, that "requires bold decisions and hard choices". Nevertheless, the referendum continues to raise big questions - not least about inequality - but deals with them in small, inadequate ways.

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