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ALEX BELL: Evidence shows world is not such a mess, things are getting better…but Scotland is not

Volunteers help deliver £32,000 worth of fresh food to families in Kirkcaldy over Christmas.
Volunteers help deliver £32,000 worth of fresh food to families in Kirkcaldy over Christmas.

We tend to think everything is getting worse. That the world is a mess and disaster is our destination. The evidence shows otherwise.

In broad terms, we have never been so healthy, wealthy or wise. This is the best time to be alive, as measured by your chance of living a long life, disease-free and untroubled by war.

Professor Hans Rosling of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has made it his mission to tell the world the good news. He calls this “factfulness”. The facts show we are better off than ever before, so accept them.

His book Factfulness is a fascinating read. It gathers data which shows that people alive today are better off than any past generation. This doesn’t apply if your ambition is to live naked in the woods free of all civilisation, but it’s good for the rest of us.

Yet politics rarely mentions this. We prefer a story of threats and defeats, where it’s the best we can manage to survive from day to day. Education is getting worse, the NHS is on its knees, this constitutional change will render us starving, that constitutional change will cripple the fit.

We like a dark story more than a light one, and so discount reality against an imagined world of failure.

Unfortunately, Scotland is the exception to the rule. Things really are getting worse. That’s not some fevered opinion, but fact.

The data shows that our NHS is worse. Much as it shows that our education system is failing by international standards. The facts are that Scots are earning less money and are dying sooner than people in comparable countries.

These facts don’t apply to all of us equally – a well-paid, well-educated middle-class person in Aberdeen or Dundee is likely to live as long, and as happily, as an equivalent lucky citizen of Switzerland or the USA. However, national statistics don’t focus on the fortunate. When looked at as a whole, Scotland is failing.

The latest evidence-based report to confirm Scotland’s decline comes from the economist John McLaren, who has updated his Index of Social and Economic Wellbeing (ISEW). McLaren uses four indicators to rank countries. These are income, education, longevity and inclusion.

Using the data on these four issues, he compares the nations in the OECD – the world’s richest 32 countries. He also treats the four nations of the UK as a separate entities. This means we can see how much devolution has changed things for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You can see the results for yourself on the website Scottish Trends.

The best-performing country is Switzerland, the worst Greece. England comes in at 12th, Scotland at 21, with Northern Ireland and Wales worse still. The worrying thing is that many countries have got better since 2006, when the survey begins. Some, such as Poland and Estonia, by a big margin. The average for all the countries is positive – things are getting better.

The exception is Scotland, where things have reversed since 2006.

McLaren, a former adviser to Donald Dewar, cares passionately about Scotland. It is a thankless task running a website monitoring the economy and compiling reports such as the ISEW. His recommendations are to be taken seriously.

On our failing education system, he says: “Looking south of the border could help Scottish policy-makers to identify good practice for improving school performance. There have been so many initiatives in the English school system over the past 20 years that it can be difficult to know what has worked and what has not. Nevertheless, the fact that England’s PISA performance has not fallen, on average, and that the performance of some areas, in particular London, have improved notably should provide food for thought and for moving forward from the disappointment of Curriculum for Excellence.”

While on the issue of our life expectancy, he says “post devolution, the wide array of measures put into place to improve health practices and behaviour has had little impact on Scotland’s relatively poor international performance on this measure”.

It is a bleak read. The one big policy change since 1999, the reform of our school curriculum, has failed.

While the issues which have blighted Scotland for decades – a weak economy and bad health – have not shifted one iota.

In diplomatic language, McLaren suggests the Scottish Government could still act.

“It will be interesting to see if next month’s Scottish budget, with its greater emphasis on wellbeing, is more radical than past efforts in redirecting money towards preventative rather than treatment based measures, especially in relation to health and education,” he says.

Policy in this country is too often governed by political convenience and cowardice. The budget will not dramatically change this, because its main function is to keep Scotland ticking over. The ambition to change, and the nerve to face down the inevitable upset change will bring, is simply absent from Holyrood.

The rest of the world might be getting better. We are not. And it is our fault. Pity poor Scotland. Pity the poor Scots who rely on politics to make things better.