New life

Sturgeon’s baby boxes will enliven the case for independence, writes Sarah Busby

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bairn boxes

“You’re from Scotland?” said the thirty-something woman I sat next to in a café in London’s East End, in the summer of 2014. “Wow, it sounds like there’s a brilliant atmosphere there, loads of new ideas washing away all the old stuff.” Surprised, I replied with something about all societies needing new ideas, and that Yes (then as now) owned the future. We talked for a bit and as she left, she said: “Hope you get them both – the Yes and the ideas!” Of course neither of us knew then that Yes would lose the referendum but win the aftermath, which has brought us to this era of SNP dominance, with its danger and opportunity. The danger is that in our enthusiasm to move forward, we let the conservative, business-as-usual element within the  SNP off the hook, without valid scrutiny. For me, (as in Bella’s article yesterday), mixing improved climate change targets with a cut in airport tax makes little sense. And our children, if they are very kind, will one day look at the SNP’s cuddling up to Big Oil and wonder at its timidity.

But – credit where it’s due – the SNP sometimes brandishes bold policies which capture the spirit of the times. No less so than Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement yesterday that a new SNP government would offer baby’s boxes containing childcare essentials to every new baby born in Scotland. This is an imaginative fusion of progressive social policy and clever politics. The policy has existed in Finland for decades. A Scottish version was proposed in an article by Katriona Gillespie in Product last year.

Gillespie returned to the subject on Thursday, explaining:

“In Finland, this policy has contributed to dramatic drops in child mortality from 20 infant deaths per 1,000 (or 2%) 50 years ago to a mere 0.2% today…In Save the Children’s 2015 ‘State of the World’s Mothers’ ranking, the UK rated a lowly 24th when assessed across a range of infant and maternal health indicators, behind all of its Western European neighbours and just above Belarus.”

Gillespie simply looked for best practice from abroad with proven social gains, and publicised it when she found it. With a fair wind behind it – and the rest of Sturgeon’s policies across training, early years and education will need to come through – here is an excellent social policy idea with every chance of genuinely affecting real change in Scotland for years to come.

“…the baby box also symbolises the fair and equal start that we want for all children” said Sturgeon, which is where the politics comes in. Because it will be impossible for any opposition to argue against this policy. More importantly, it’s just the kind of policy that communicates to No voters that independence will be both different and markedly better. It’s a reassertion that political ideas matter.

The baby boxes tap into the ideas and energy which have driven the independence debate since it became apparent that New Labour was a hollowed out husk. People began to grow sick of the notion that nothing much could be done about anything, that new ideas were no longer needed, certainly not from the great unwashed, and the offer from politicians was simply managed decline, a continuation of the right’s decades’ long political project to undermine all social provision, scapegoat the vulnerable and eviscerate public services in an endless downward spiral of blame and human misery. The unspoken part of the narrative was that the state couldn’t do anything and as such wasn’t worth your attention or energy, which were better served on naff celebrity culture, crass consumerism and simply making cash. The state’s real function was to make things easy for Big Money, voters be damned.

So Nicola is right. The baby’s box is rich in symbolism. Healthy democracies need ideas to move forward, and who will argue against something which helps families in the first exhilarating, exhausting weeks of a new life?

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