In the spirit of citizenship, which we know the Scottish government will be pleased to see us adopting, we would like to issue a public warning about a rogue messaging device. Her name is Kirsty. Think of Kirsty as the Agent Smith of the Scottish politics Matrix – she started off as an extra to clean up pieces of messy ideology, but now she has learned to multiply and is quickly spiralling out of control, her hunger for ever greater social order seemingly insatiable.
Kirsty started life as the SNP’s premium messaging device, a child whose life is determined from the start by poverty, but who can be rescued through ‘interventions’ from the benevolent state. We describe Kirsty’s rather boring life in our book – she is a pure economistic subject, who can either nobly and apolitically serve the cause of capital, or be a drain on the welfare budget and the political energy of the state. Her path will be determined by the Scottish parliament’s limited policy choices.
“In this narrative Kirsty’s life is overdetermined by her economic and social position, and every individual is an intersection of structures of economic necessity and ability. Governments try to find ways to represent the people back to the people. They raise a distorting mirror that highlights the virtues and ills everybody has in common. What seems like a highly personalised politics in fact reduces people to the common denominators of their lives. If you want a shorthand for the process of representation, call it Kirstification: the human characterisation of the nation’s economic life.”
But now Kirsty has really come into her own. She is no longer merely the child of one party, she is, we are told by Holyrood Magazine, the child of the whole 2016 Scottish Parliament. Here she is; she even has a hashtag (those squeamish about social nationalism look away now):
Baby Kirsty represents everything wrong with Scottish politics. Let’s see how Holyrood Magazine present the concept. They say it is a ‘social experiment’, important because this parliament may well be ‘one the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world [sic]’. As we know, says the editor in her didactic wisdom, ‘inequality doesn’t just happen; it is a choice’, and the parliamentarians can choose Kirsty’s life out of poverty if they make the right decisions. Kirsty is ‘a child born into one of Scotland’s most deprived communities’, and we’re invited to watch our imaginary poverty child through the pages of Holyrood Magazine, with a rush of middle class do-gooder voyeurism.
‘Evidence shows’ that poverty impacts on childrens’ ‘health, cognitive development, social, emotional and behavioural development and educational outcomes’ (the managers of Scottish society are always hungry for evidence of the nature of poverty, since it is such a confusing entity from where they’re standing). And Kirsty’s life has been determined from the start. She will have been born less healthy than more affluent children. And she will do worse at school, and continue to have worse health than rich kids.
What the Scottish government have to do is stage a series of interventions in health and education. They will adopt a policy of universal services with extras for particularly deprived areas, so that Kirsty’s life will be affected by ‘local initiatives’, that direct her mother towards third sector advice and extra healthcare. Somehow, using the powers of health and education, and despite massively depleted budgets, Kirsty’s poverty will be ironed out, at least enough that the Scottish government can claim to have met certain targets that they set themselves.
The story of state intervention after the fact of disadvantage was implanted in Scotland by Blair, the creator of this ugly parliament. Blair’s immortal words, ‘Education, Education, Education’, were his bland offering to the people, and under him New Labour ground into action, trying to change the lives of the poor by lifting each individual soul through school and university. The Scottish Parliament had the ability to engage in this enriching and mindful exercise through ‘health powers’ as well. Poverty appears to these parliamentarians, journalists and third sector gurus as a terrible apparition, Poverty with a capital ‘P’, godlike, impenetrable. It is a monster that we can’t defeat, we can just give people better armour and provide them with healthcare and life insurance in case they get mauled by it.
The emphasis on child poverty in particular is heavily Blairite. Children can’t be blamed for their poverty, only adults, who we assume like the parliamentarians might just make the wrong choices in life. When asked why they don’t tackle poverty itself, rather than its effects, the Scottish political class are bemused. One answer that comes readily to their lips is that we don’t know what poverty is. It’s like the Glasgow Effect, it’s just a Really Complicated Thing That Everyone Is Trying Really Hard To Tackle. Another answer is that tackling poverty itself comes under reserved ‘powers’ (Scottish politicians are very keen to stress that there is nothing they could possibly do with their own powers to tackle bad work, bad rents, rising prices. And of course, nobody mentions taxation and gets away with it.)
In one sense they are right. If we are to take the distribution of ‘powers’ far too literally, then we can agree that Westminster administers capitalism, Holyrood administers the inadequate palliative care. But that’s not really how the state operates – even the corporate Early Modern states ended up spawning violent and territorial mini-states like the East-India companies. In the murky fog of the distribution of ‘powers’ we seem to lose the state somewhere. Something doesn’t sit right with the image of governments tossing ‘powers’, over health, tax, finance, back and forth between their respective parliaments, councils and executives, and sometimes farming them out to private companies. Where has the state gone?
The ‘State of Things’, vague as it seems, is sometimes an easier way to conceptualise something that is scattered in such a way as to prevent us from really being able to comprehend it. The State of Things is always the same, no matter what powers we choose to shift around on our Kriegsspiel (which at the end of the day is only a representation). Call it what you will – capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy – for the moment we don’t care, we just want to acknowledge that the Scottish government, far from administering palliative powers, administers a part of the State of Things, in a way that is not clearly defined or divisible. And this means that the Scottish Parliament, and its faithful crowd of consultants and third sector gurus, administer poverty.
If we become the disciples of the Scottish Ideology of ‘powers for a purpose’, we will waste our lives, and, ironically, the lives of the real-life Kirstys. We will never look behind the tartan curtain, never tackle the real monster: not Poverty but the rich, the people who appropriate wealth produced by those they employ and, through a sort of obscene reverse alchemy, turn it into poverty. The rich are never discussed in the world of Scottish politics, how could they be the problem – if Kirsty was rich, she’d be lovely, not a burden but an ‘asset’! Poor Kirsty is the problem, with her nasty deprivation, her cruel childhood, her bad teeth.
Holyrood Magazine don’t know what they’re doing of course. As we said in our last editorial, people willingly buy into the Scottish ideology without realising it’s an ideology at all. Holyrood Magazine have openly taken the SNP’s messaging device and declared that they will use it in an ‘objective’, ‘evidence-based’, ‘non-party-political’ way. They have no conception at all that it might be a political position to use the device in the first place – after all, how could a baby be ideological?
In One Way Street, Walter Benjamin wrote that ‘proper polemics pick up a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby’. Since we are always extolling the art of criticism, join us for once in roasting Kirsty on the flames. We ask you to do no more than Holyrood Magazine’s bidding: ‘tweet a baby picture of yourself with the hashtag #holyroodbaby and include any suggestions that you think could positively alter the course of Kirsty’s life.’ But think of it more as a recipe than a manifesto: don’t be afraid to turn up the heat.