MY DISAGREEMENTS with Gordon Brown have always been wide and deep, so I am rather disinclined to take seriously the speech he made in Kirkcaldy on Saturday trying to redefine the General Election in his own terms. This was the parliamentary constituency that recorded the biggest swing against Labour in 2014, with the happy result of replacing Brown as its MP with the SNP’s Roger Mullin. I hope the voters will this time send Roger back again with a majority just as resounding.

Brown’s purpose was on the face of it a serious one. He thinks the election campaign so far has been too much about a second Scottish referendum and about Brexit, so the problem of poverty has been neglected. This is not an impression I have myself. Every election brings its own themes to the fore, according to the events of the moment, but I would have thought poverty was a constant. The poor are always with us, after all, to give each succeeding generation of politicians something to talk about and occasionally even to try doing something about.

It has become the ex–premier’s style since he was ejected from office in 2010 to make dramatic appearances out of the darkness in which he otherwise dwells at North Queensferry – moved, he would have us believe, by the gravity of the matters on which he chooses to pronounce. This time what brought him forth was, by his own account, the awful realisation that levels of poverty will be worse in the time of Theresa May than they ever were in the days of Margaret Thatcher.

Loading article content

He used figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies to claim 320,000 children living in Scotland would be in poverty by 2022.

Actually, if you go to the relevant web pages you will find it was very much Brown’s interpretation rather than the institute’s – but then he always had his own way with statistics. This particular series is said by the very people who construct it to be unreliable for any particular year, because the sources on which it draws are themselves erratic. Only the long-term trend gives a truer picture.

So what is the long-term trend? There is no end of argument about the definitions of poverty, so I’ll try to keep this as simple as possible. Absolute poverty (that is, poverty measured against a fixed peg) was the lot of 40 per cent of the population in 1995-6, the year before Brown took over at the Treasury, but of only 20 per cent of the population in the last fiscal year, 2015-6. Relative poverty (that is, poverty measured against average incomes, which move) fell from 24 per cent to 22 per cent over the same period. Relative pensioner poverty fell from 28 per cent to 16 per cent. Absolute pensioner poverty fell from more than 50 per cent to 15 per cent – perhaps the best measure of how the lives of our old folk have got better despite the troubles afflicting the rest of the population. And finally child poverty: it fell absolutely from 50 to 25 per cent, while relatively it hovered between 20 and 30 per cent.

The long-term trend has been fairly favourable, then, though erratic in some respects and with progress slowing after the economic crisis of 2007-8. I can’t myself see any reason why it should suddenly get much worse between now and 2020. In other words, Brown is talking drivel.

For all the alarm bells that are being constantly rung about poverty, the overall record strikes me as not a bad one: hardly wonderful, but a good deal better than appalling. Given the economic travails of the last 20 years, we perhaps have now what was only to be expected all the way through – a little improvement, with a lot more still to be done.

I am fortified in my view when I compare the UK with its nearest neighbours. France, Belgium and Holland, Germany, Austria and the Scandinavian nations all have distributions of income roughly similar to ours. There are relatively more rich people in France and relatively more poor people in Austria, but otherwise we are all pretty much of a muchness.

To my mind this suggests European countries at a comparable stage of advanced economic development are going to arrive at roughly the same sort of social structure more or less regardless of the detail in any redistributive policies they may pursue. It is just what happens in societies of high consumption with sluggish (because elaborate) state bureaucracies.

When it comes to the wealth that is accumulated out of the income, the picture is again similar. In all these countries the wealthiest people are the ones just short of retirement, with a lifetime of earnings behind them. Their behaviour has been only sensible. They have saved up as much as they can against the day when they are earning no more income from work, and after that they live off their wealth till they die. The question is whether they should reproach themselves, or we as a society should reproach them, because this group of sixty-somethings is wealthier than everybody else. We might go on to ask whether we should tax them because they have more money to spend than twenty-somethings, those only a few years into their careers and perhaps already taking on the huge financial burdens of starting families and buying homes.

It is a system of inequality I am describing, yet is it unfair? The sixty-somethings with most of the wealth have not been bad citizens but good citizens, investing in housing and pensions so they will be less of a burden to everybody else when the time comes for them to start taking out of the system rather than putting in. It would seem to me insane for any government to set about penalising these good citizens in order to make others more equal to them. That must be the practical consequence, however, when governments tell us they are going to tackle inequality. Figuring prominently among those governments today is the Scottish Government.

I console myself that it is all just talk. If any government were really going to enforce equality, it would need to acquire dictatorial powers over its society on the scale of the communist countries before 1989, today only to be found in Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea. More or less all other rights would have to be sacrificed to the ideal of equality, with the by-product of a non-functioning economy: that certainly provides a final solution for the distribution of wealth. Even in an independent Scotland, I don’t think it could be done somehow.

Scotland is in fact already a more equal country than England, mainly because we lack the class of super-rich who inflate the income of London and its region. Only about five per cent of our population come into the top rank of taxpayers, compared with nearly double that down south. For all the reasons mentioned in this column, and others, I don’t think we are ever going to do much better than that. It would be far more useful for us to concentrate on growing our economy, rather than let it drift further into decline, so that there is more available for everybody (and the way to achieve this is through independence). When elections come round I suppose we will always have to put up with a lot of nonsense from politicians. We hope for once they might talk sense. Instead they chant the same old meaningless mantras.