A FATHER tires of bawling at his kids to tidy their bedrooms, so he tries a softly-softly approach.

He offers £20 to whichever one of them finishes the chore first. Jeanie sets about it smartly, while Jimmy shrugs and turns back to his computer games. She gets the £20, he gets nothing. The result is unequal, but is it unjust?

This example occurred to me while I was reading Kevin McKenna’s column in The Herald on Saturday, which paid me the compliment of using my piece here last week as a text to preach from – not, of course, so as to agree with me. Instead he took me to task for my “neglect to mention … the issue of justice and fairness in dealing with inequality.”

Loading article content

There was good reason for the “neglect”. Kevin and his like exaggerate the poverty of Scotland. They depict this country almost as a European Somalia, with hordes of natives living off food banks because otherwise they could not stay alive. Yet it was only three years ago, in those heady days before the Scottish referendum, that we were boasting how rich we were, how easily able to meet the challenges of independence. Can so much have changed within such a short time?

Of course it hasn’t. We certainly have poor people, but in proportion no more than other European countries. International inequality is measured by a statistic called the Gini coefficient; the closer to zero a country is, the more equal. Scotland has a coefficient of 30, compared to an EU average of 31 and a UK figure of 32. We are actually a little more equal than most of our neighbours.

A recent international survey shows the UK with average annual household income of $13,867 (at the prices of the year 2000). There are no separate figures for Scotland, but we know our gross domestic product is about 96 per cent of the UK’s, so we can guess at average household incomes of $13,300 or so. That puts us on a par with France, up among the top 20 richest countries.

Yet we have nothing like the vast banlieues, the peripheral suburbs of Paris and Marseille, breeding grounds not only of poverty but also of Islamic terrorism. By comparison our difficulties, while not negligible, are minor. If wealthy countries like France and Scotland are unable, in the present state of the world, to solve every single problem, then nobody can. Quelle surprise.

In any case I think we make a mistake to conflate the concepts of justice and fairness and treat them as more or less the same. I have already given one little example of how they differ, and I can derive more from Kevin’s own line of argument. In our society, he writes, “fairer outcomes would be achieved by penalising those who benefited from the previous iniquitous arrangements”, that is, the ones under which we save and inherit today. What he suggests is that people whose comfortable careers and lifestyles depend to any extent on their family’s successful history should somehow have their assets raided by the state. The sins of the fathers will be visited on the sons. We cannot punish the guilty, who are dead, so let’s punish the innocent instead.

It is true the British state helped families to acquire their wealth through tax concessions. But this is because most governments, here and in all advanced countries, regard the ownership of property and the security of a pension as beneficial to their voters and to society as a whole. They are right. Kevin’s Scotland would take the opposite view. Home ownership and saving up for retirement would not be the sign of a good citizen, but the mark of capitalist exploitation.

To correct that, I presume the present structure of mildly progressive taxation would never be enough. We might need an Act of Confiscation passed by our Parliament to seize from perfectly blameless, law-abiding and hard-working families a certain portion of their housing equity or pension rights, the forms in which most hold their wealth. Their bricks and mortar, or their deferred consumption, would have to be turned overnight into hard cash, but that would be their problem. Scottish society’s problem would be the drop in investment (which we need like a hole in the head) to fund a sudden increase in consumption by the poor. We could expect serious financial disruption, as in 2008, but of course this would count as nothing against the greater goal of equality.

Since, however, those to be penalised under the Act of Confiscation make up a majority of the electorate, I wonder what ideas Kevin has for getting it through our Parliament. Apart from the small matter of democracy, of whether their representatives would vote for it, I wonder also if such legislation would not contravene the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees a right to the peaceful enjoyment of property. Perhaps Kevin McKenna joins Theresa May in wishing to cast off such inconvenient constraints on political power.

We are already deep into La-La-Land, but let’s pursue the fantasy a bit further. I dare say that, like me, Kevin welcomes the Romanians or the Syrians who in these troubled times have chosen Scotland as their refuge, where they can realise their dreams for themselves and their families in a manner impossible for them at home. Migration is a poignant spectacle. People uproot themselves from everything near and dear to them and move to a faraway country where they know that for their sacrifice they are unlikely ever to be fully compensated in person.

It will be for their children and for future generations to reap the benefit from all their struggles and hardships.

But not if Kevin gets his way, even though Scotland needs immigration. Let’s take the example of a Polish plumber who has come over here, after hearing that Scottish plumbers make a mint. He grafts away so that at his death he can leave each of his children a tidy sum for their continued integration into our society, in which they have grown up as honest and useful citizens. Along comes Kevin’s socialist Scottish state and lays down the law: “You can’t do that! You are creating inequality! Your kids will need to start again!” It might as well say: “Push off back to Poland!” Through this strain of militant Scottish socialism, the prejudice of Ukip somehow strangely shines through.

To complete my interrogation, let’s suppose that one of these days Scotland might actually reach the perfect state of equality Kevin wishes for. I’ll waive further quibbles of my own and just define equality as whatever he wants, reached by whatever process he proposes. On Equality Day, every single Scot will have £30,000 in his or her pocket (gross domestic product divided by five million). Hurrah! Only one more question occurs to me: is this a stable situation?

Well, I think we all know that within a short time, perhaps a week or a month, certainly a year, some Scots would have blown the lot. This is after all the nation of the randan. What with fags, booze and cuddies, it would not take certain of us long to get through £30,000.

On the other hand – here’s that old Caledonian antisyzygy – it is the nation of the savings bank and the investment trust too, so a different set of Scots would have doubled their money, or more. What then? In view of the failure of the first redistribution, do we get another? And what if that fails, and another and another and another, till the energies of the Scottish state are all but entirely taken up with a process that never reaches the desired end? We are dealing with human beings, not robots – which is why equality in Kevin McKenna’s sense will always be pursued in vain.