SUMMER 2017 is fast becoming the season of pernickety discontent.

In the United States, Trump is sacking top advisers on a near-daily basis.

In Theresa May’s cabinet there’s more agreement on who wrote the Great British Bake Off cookbook than the desirability of a two-year transitional period after Brexit.

Loading article content

And the Scottish independence movement is not immune. On social media there has been flyting aplenty and provocative questions and defensive reactions abound.

Are some front pages in The National too sensational? Are some critics a tad carnaptious? Is Wings Over Scotland homophobic? Are some members of the “radical left” out of touch with the “mainstream”?

Is the SNP leadership flawless? Are convenors of the Scottish Independence Convention the right people to represent the independence movement?

It’s tempting to wade in – but there is weather and there is climate.

All these doubts, questions and criticisms are important – but they are essentially weather.

And while we worry and wonder about the methods, motivations and capacity of comrades, we overlook one thing that binds us. One thing that is absolutely certain.

We need political climate change to deliver an independent Scots parliament that’s able to motor away at speed from the policy mess that is Britain. Why are we so confident independence will achieve that?

Because the Scottish Parliament has consistently inched back from Westminster’s unequal, Victorian, marketised and punitive default over nearly 20 years of Labour, LibDem and SNP devolved governance.

Scotland is fast becoming a modern European social democracy, held back by Westminster control, our own timidity and unfamiliarity with the levers of power. But England is plunging consciously and headlong into a grim, 21st-century version of a Charles Dickens novel, where the wealthy are protected and the poor condemned.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of those different outlooks lies in the least popular policy area – prisons.

In England, this week, official figures revealed a record number of prisoners set free by mistake and violence in jails at an all-time high.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the chief inspector of prisons called for all prison sentences of less than a year to be scrapped and converted into periods of community payback.

I should admit a personal interest. In 2008 I was a member of the Scottish Prisons Commission tasked with figuring out why Scotland had three times the prison population of Ireland, mainland Europe and the Nordic nations despite having roughly the same crime rate.

It took 18 months of visits to prisons, community alternatives and a few neighbouring countries to attempt an explanation – and a suggested remedy. Neither was entirely novel. Scotland, like England, has a tendency to criminalise nuisance behaviour, which is mostly the product of inequality and generational poverty. Newspapers whip up moral frenzies about crime and hostility towards offenders which fuel demands for more imprisonment. In deprived communities, the law-abiding majority strongly support jail sentences as a form of temporary respite from angry, unbalanced, violent and desperate people.

Yet for thousands of offenders their “home” is no safe space, but a place of violence, territory, grudges, danger, grinding poverty, addiction, drugs, prostitution, lawlessness and survival of the fittest with a chronic under-provision of health and social services.

That’s why many in the Scottish justice system still believe they are helping vulnerable and self-harming offenders – particularly women – by sentencing them to jail, because that’s where they are most likely to get medical attention, psychological support and re-housing away from dangerous “home” patches.

Yet everyone knows short, repeated jail sentences simply “warehouse” inmates because a sentence of one year or more is needed to benefit from lengthy and excellent courses on anger management and literacy.

For minor offenders, jail is simply an academy of crime but release into an unsupported, underfunded community sector is little better.

And that’s why David Strang’s call – to end jail for sentences of one year and under – is so revolutionary.

For that to happen, the Scottish Government and local authorities must resolve hitherto intractable problems.

Unless the authorities get housing, welfare and addiction services right, cutting the number of jail sentences will save money but won’t improve the life chances of offenders, victims or local communities.

Unless they acknowledge the link between poverty, inequality and crime, no government will place a high enough priority on better local support services and no deprived community will be happy to see offenders “jump the queue” for limited access to those scarce, basic essentials of life.

And unless Scots politicians and decision makers distance themselves completely from the harsh, short-termist default of British penal policy and aim explicitly for the kind of well-resourced community care that is impossible under Westminster’s austere watch, we will not succeed in making the changes everyone in prisons reform has been recommending for decades.

That’s the difference between Scotland and England.

The Prisons Commission report of 2008 that recommended a shift to community payback for sentences of six months and under wasn’t rocket science or novel. What was extraordinary was its acceptance in full by a government – the Scottish Government. Attending a couple of conferences on prisons reform in England, we watched seasoned campaigners weep in the knowledge that such a commission would never be established in England and, had it made the same recommendations as ourselves, would have been roundly ignored by the British Government.

Instead, England and Wales have pressed on with privatised prisons (big mistake) with underfunding and therefore understaffing of state-run prisons (dangerous mistake). The result is that this week, prison governors in England have declared themselves to be “devastated” by the “complete decline of the prison service” – an utterly predictable outcome of all the other mistakes.

Meanwhile, the British Government has turbo-charged the causes of crime with its harsh, shameful and partly-illegal benefits cap, its bedroom tax and punitive public spending cuts. This ugly outlook increases inequality, unfairness, fear of benefit sanctions, hopelessness, social immobility and squalor and encourages a “dog eat dog” paranoid individualism in lieu of the solidarity that makes society functional and life bearable.

The Scottish Government has quite consciously gone in a different direction in welfare, taxation and prisons reform – glory be. It may not yet be wholesale change and some sheriffs remain dubious about the efficacy of community alternatives. But already, the results speak for themselves.

England’s jails are in meltdown, with riot squad officers sent into a Hertfordshire prison for the second time in 24 hours this week after “inmates seized a wing again” and a former governor has described a “fundamental breakdown” in relations between staff and prisoners.

Such a strained environment with weekly riots does not exist in Scotland. Yes, there are horrific attacks – one left a jail guard scarred for life at Shotts last year – and figures obtained by the Scottish LibDems last month seemed to suggest the same level of prisoner assaults in Scotland as England. But according to the Scottish Prisons Service, these statistics are not directly comparable. If three guards restrain one prisoner in Scotland, that’s recorded as three separate attacks. SPS spokesperson Tom Fox said: “I’ve been working here for 17 years and things are not as they once were. The last major incident we dealt with was almost five years ago in Aberdeen. I remember serious situations in Shotts and Edinburgh jails – it doesn’t feel as if we are dealing with the same reality now and I think the chief executive (Colin McConnell) who was twenty years in prisons south of the Border, also thinks the two systems aren’t comparable any more.”

Glasgow University’s professor of criminology and social work Fergus O’Neill said: “Academic research suggests English prisons are in a much worse state thanks to a relatively impoverished regime.”

Things are not perfect in Scotland but we are heading in the right direction – primarily because Scottish Government ministers do not obsess about finding “market solutions” and simply listened to expert advice on crime and the provision of community services.

Compared to our European neighbours, Scotland still imprisons far more folk than necessary. But we are peeling away from England and pursuing a different path; a non-British path on the treatment of offenders and the causes of crime.

Every day I see reasons to be cheerful about the transformation in Scottish society since 1999 and the possibilities that lie ahead. Let’s all try to keep our eyes on that prize.