Category: Social Policy

This occasional blog discusses issues in Social Policy.

Thinking Collectively

I’ve just received the first print copies of my new book, Thinking Collectively: social policy, collective action and the common good. In Reclaiming Individualism, I made a case for social and government action in order to protect and enhance the conditions of individuals. Thinking collectively complements those arguments by considering collective approaches to social policy.

These comments are from the reviews obtained by the publisher:

“Paul Spicker asks how to think-with, live-with, and be-with collectives in this important new book which sees afresh the possibilities of collective life. Crucially, it also reinstates the significance of the common good and value of the common weal for social scientists and activists.”   Stephen A. Webb, Glasgow Caledonian University

“This concise and well-written book is a compelling and timely reminder of the importance of collective action and political community.”   Daniel Béland, McGill University

It’s my nineteenth book, my third since leaving Robert Gordon University.

Andrew Neil’s figures were out of date, but they weren’t made up

Andrew Neil has been censured by Ofcom for saying in an interview in 2017 that one in five pupils who left primary school in Scotland were “functionally illiterate”.   According to the BBC report of the judgment, the BBC submitted that

“the figure had come from a 2009 report, but that “it was not accurate to say that this allowed the conclusion quoted in the programme  … It should have been made clear that the phrase ‘functionally illiterate’ was not used in that report and that its source was the education spokeswoman of the Scottish Conservatives.” When it published its findings in November 2017, the ECU said that the 2009 survey “contained no reference to ‘functional illiteracy’, and no data which would have justified the claim in question”.

That surprised me, because I’d come across the 20% figure before.

The main source of the figure is arguably a report written by Professor J Lo Bianco, Language and Literacy Policy in Scotland, published in 2001 by SCILT at the University of Strathclyde.  Lo Bianco’s report was a wake up call for Scottish education – it had a major impact on the treatment of Gaelic and BSL.  He wrote that “More than one adult in five is not functionally literate in English and even more people have problems with numeracy.”  He wrote:

The UK-wide Report Improving Literacy and Numeracy, A Fresh Start (Moser Report 1999) notes in its opening paragraph that ‘something like one adult in five in this country is not functionally literate and far more people have problems with numeracy. This is a shocking situation and a sad reflection on past decades of schooling. It is one of the reasons for relatively low productivity in our economy, and it cramps the lives of millions of people.’ Whilst the situation that is reported is indeed shocking it is far from clear that it is valid to make a direct and causal connection between the levels of assessed adult literacy and ‘past decades of schooling’. The International Adult Literacy Study of 1997 suggests that 23% of adult Scots have low literacy skills.

Subsequently, England developed the “Skills for Life” survey, which by 2011 recorded marked improvements in functional literacy.  A Scottish report in 2008, “New Light on Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland”  avoided the question of functional literacy.  Based on a study of adults aged 34, it commented that ” literacy levels in England and Scotland were nearly identical”(p 8)   but commented that ” 39% of men and 36% of women in the survey had literacy abilities at a level likely to impact on their employment opportunities and life chances.”

What’s been happening since is important.  The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy shows a marked improvement in standards in primary schools, where the foundations of literacy are laid, and now 88% of pupils in P7 are considered to be performing ‘well’ or ‘very well’.  That improvement probably wouldn’t have happened without those earlier reports.

I don’t much like Andrew Neil’s politics, but he’s a terrific journalist.  Even if on occasion he gets things wrong, he doesn’t make things up.  The main charge against him is not that he was wrong, or that his use of the term ‘functional literacy’ was inappropriate, but that he was outdated.  That’s a mistake that any of us who are trying to distill information drawn from a wide field might have made.

Intergenerational fairness shouldn’t mean that we cut pensioner benefits

The House of Lords report, Tackling Intergenerational Fairness, is a strange document. Most of it – six chapters out of seven – is a sober, well-documented account of demographic shifts in the pattern of disadvantage.  When it comes to policy, however, there is a serious disconnect.  There’s precious little about policies to remedy disadvantage within the older population – Pension Credit hardly gets a look-in, Housing Benefit (due to be shifted into PC) disappears, social care is punted into the long grass while waiting for a different report.

What there is an attack on policies that benefit old people: the report tilts at National Insurance, benefits for pensioners and universal provision, suggesting cuts for all of them.  Winter Fuel Payment is attacked, foolishly, because it doesn’t do much about fuel (a category mistake: as I’ve previously argued in this blog, we mustn’t get confused between the title of a benefit and the purpose it serves).  The welfare state, Alan Walker once commented, is largely a welfare state for older people, and the apparent premise behind the recommendations of this report is that the answer to that imbalance is to have a go at the welfare state.  It might be more constructive to think about how the benefits of secure, solidaristic benefits might be extended to younger people and people of working age.

The ‘will of the majority’ is not a democratic principle

I can’t believe I’m having to say this, but the storm of protest when I posted on Twitter a couple of days ago tells me that some people really can’t tell the difference between democracy and dictatorship.  Twitter doesn’t lend itself to extended arguments, and it’s difficult even to reply sensibly; once a tweet has cropped up in four or five postings, there are too many threads to take account of.  The (admittedly truncated) comment that sparked people off was this:

Democracy is not a system that “implements the majority’s will”. It’s a system that respects and protects the rights of minorities. 

This attracted withering scorn.  One critic – a politics lecturer! – wrote:

Some confusion here about the meaning of democracy, from an emeritus professor of politics.

I tried to explain in these terms. 

The main models of democracy are institutional (eg elections, protected opposition), prescriptive (eg rule of law, deliberation) and normative (eg participation, rights). Majorities are only a device for resolving disagreements. The reason why we have oppositions is that majority views are never enough. Madisonian democracy treats majorities as a coalition of minority interests. In no democratic country does the winner take all.

Majority rule is a convention – a method for arriving at decisions, rather than a principle in itself.  It’s been used (like some other methods) in a variety of circumstances, and in many cases those circumstances are not democratic. I tried to explain that ” majority rule is not intrinsically democratic – it’s also used in dictatorships. Without contest, respect for rights or the ability to vote again, it’s undemocratic.”

It is absurd to suggest that “majority rule is used in dictatorships”. Elections in dictatorships are never used to express the majority will; if they were, they would not be dictatorships.

That’s an astonishing reply. Most of the dictators in the world have been elected.  What makes them dictators is the suppression of opposition and civil rights.

Bizarre. You actually think elections in dictatorships are free and fair, such that they actually represent the majority’s will?

You think that a majority can’t ever truly be oppressive, racist or fascist? Dictators often seek majority votes: eg Mussolini 1934, Hitler 1936, Franco 1947, Marcos 1973. “Autocratic regimes consult voters even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.” (from

That is exactly my point. Majority voting is only democratic when elections are free and fair. Therefore, you cannot delegitimise majority voting by pointing to the existence of elections in authoritarian regimes, where elections are not free and fair.

An election where winner takes all on a majority vote cannot be democratic, regardless of whether the process is fair. That’s what gives you Mussolini or Mugabe. Democracy must protect the rights of minorities and of opposition, or it isn’t democracy.

And here we circle back again to your smuggling-in of liberal principles of minority protection into the definition of democracy. Opposition is essential for democracy but winner-takes-all is entirely compatible with it as well. Stop conflating important concepts.

The key point here is that majority rule is never, in itself, sufficient to guarantee democracy.  Beyond that, the translation of the conventions of majority rule into claims about ‘the will of the people’  is itself questionable – a device of demagogues and dictators.

The problems of people who beg

Shelter Scotland has published a noteworthy report profiling people begging in Edinburgh.  The report asked questions of 420 people; that’s unlikely to be everyone, but it’s a lot.

Addiction plays a large part, with nearly 90% misusing drugs or alcohol; more than 80% had mental health problems, mainly depression and anxiety, and more than 60% also had physical health problems.  It’s a population that overlaps with street homelessness – 43% said they slept rough – but the two things are not equivalent, and I was struck as much by the differences as by the similarities.  When I worked on the census of homeless people in Aberdeen, it was the support staff who tended to say that the problems were problems of life-style and personal issues; homeless people said that the main problems were that they were cold and they were hungry.  People begging in Edinburgh seem far more likely to say that it’s down to their personal issues.

I did wonder if people might have been steered in some directions by the shape of the questions asked.  One of the messages from the qualitative studies I’ve done with psychiatric patients in the past is that family matters; the people left without support to become homeless are mainly those whose relationships with the family have broken down.  This is hinted at, but overall it’s not a major factor here.  In fairness, though, it’s difficult to set up exploratory, discursive interviews with homeless people (been there, done that); the remarkable thing about the Shelter study is how much information they’ve been able to bring together.

Some thoughts on nationalism and social policy

Over the last few days, I’ve hopped round a series of apparently unconnected sources which seem, nevertheless, to have a common theme.  I’ve been looking, for example, at material about the experience of poverty in low income countries; at political arguments concerning Zionism and anti-Zionism; at arguments for a distinct Scottish currency; and a constitutional arrangements concerning the rights of European citizens.  The issue that they have in common is a sense of the nation as a body which defines the scope of public policy.

Some years ago, Daniel Béland and André Lecours wrote a fascinating book on the relationship between nationalism and social policy.  The key question they are concerned with is how far our communities, and our responsibilities, extend. The case examples they looked at, such as Belgium and Canada, are effectively multi-national states, but so are others which see themselves as having a unifying culture – look, for example, at the constitutions of Ireland or Poland.   (Those constitutions, for what it’s worth, show that there is nothing exceptional about Zionist nationalism.)  The link between nationalism and social policy isn’t just that nationalist movements tend to emphasis the importance of mutual welfare, though it makes sense that they should do so.  It’s that social policy itself depends on the construction of a political community – an identifiable group which defines the scope and limits of mutual responsibility and support. However, solidarity in a political community commonly extends across nations and ethnicities – and some political communities extend beyond territory, too, which is how a few hundred thousand people have recently been able to claim Irish citizenship.  To be legitimate, solidarity and citizenship have  to be reasonably inclusive: any such community needs to accept that there will be people from more than one nation within it. Scottish nationalism meets that test; I’m not sure that all the other contenders do.


A protest about women-only events: can’t there be safe spaces for women?

A stushie in Edinburgh, with accompanying Twitter storm, has exercised my nearest and dearest.  The Audacious Women Festival, as the name implies, might be assumed to have something to do with women: find their tweets at @awfest.  Some of the events are open to all, and some are single-sex events intended for women.  But the idea of a single-sex event has exercised a particular lobby, claiming to represent trans and non-binary people, who have called for a boycott.  Yesterday, Glasgow Women’s Library (@womenslibrary) pulled out of two single-sex workshops they were due to conduct, leaving sixty people without an event at 30 minutes’ notice. Edinburgh Rape Crisis (@EdinRapeCrisis) has pulled a book launch planned for Monday.  Reactions on Twitter have been mixed; it seems to me that more people have condemned the organisations than have supported them.

The offence that the Festival has caused is that the organisers have stuck to the policy on gender recognition advised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: more or less, that they treat people as women when they present as women (the statement has been misread by the Twitterati who don’t understand the purpose of the word ‘or’ in a sentence).   The call for a boycott was circulated by @ClassicsQueer, who holds that that policy excludes “our trans and nb sisters”. [“NB”, for those lost in acronyms, stands for non-binary.]   She attached a document saying this:

I would urge you particularly if you are a cis woman to boycott … A few weeks ago I reached out to them as I was concerned by the ‘women only’ rhetoric and was disappointed to find their response laden with transphobia.  I was told that the events were for people who are ‘publicly accepted as women’ and that they urge me and my friends to consider if other audience members will feel ‘comfortable with your personal identity’ before attending any events.”

Sisters Uncut Edin (I think the word ‘uncut’ is meant to be taken literally)  posted:  “We stand in solidarity with the trans, nb, gender non-conforming and cis allies who have called for a boycott of the festival.”  (Cis, for practical purposes, refers people who still have the gender assigned to them at birth.)  So, on the face of the matter, it’s not good enough to accept trans women as women, which is what the Festival does; there also has to be space for non-conforming, non-binary, non-females, or it becomes the act of a “#terf” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).

The first question to consider is whether it is legitimate to ask for distinct spaces for people of different genders.  The need for women-only spaces is recognised in equality law.  As a man, I accept that women need safe spaces; for example, as a social work supervisor with a student working in Women’s Aid, I wasn’t permitted to set foot on the premises.  Women’s discussion groups have long established the principle that the presence of men changes the dynamics of group conversation. Men, and people raised as men, are socialised to engage in discussion in different ways (and often try to dominate).  The rationale for making a distinction in supportive groups is that people from different genders have different life experiences, and behave differently as a result.  Trans, non-binary and non-conforming people have different experiences again – and have just as good a case for a distinct safe space in their own right; but that experience will not be reflected either in a men’s group or a women’s group.

The second question concerns the criteria used for inclusion and exclusion.  It seems to me that if trans, non-binary and non-conforming can be treated as a unifying category (and that, rather than trans inclusion, is the substance of the protest) we are not talking about conventional distinctions between women and men at all.  Some people extend that to include LGBTIQ+ – but that lumps gender together with sexuality, and in any case we are running out of alphabet. The issue is surely, if I can borrow a phrase from Jonathan Sacks, about recognising and valuing “the dignity of difference” – a principle which applies much more widely than the issues of gender.  But you cannot hope to rely on that principle for yourself if you deny it for others; and that, regrettably, is what the critics of the Festival are doing.

The third question concerns the boycott.  I’m baffled that the people demanding to be included can imagine that this is the way to pursue an argument.  Boycotts are exclusive; they stand at the opposite end from tactics of discourse, argument and persuasion. They are beloved by trolls and bullies.  The trans-activists who made this call are behaving like Men.  This is not what feminism looks like.

The Independent Group wants us to click on “I Agree”. Unfortunately, I don’t.

The ‘Independent Group’, the seven MPs who have quit the Labour Party has posted a statement of principles on its website.  (Not only do they have a website, they’ve even got a Wikipedia page; not bad for a movement that is less than one day old. )  The site opens on a positive statement of values, which they invite people to agree with.  Presumably they think the principle have a general appeal and that the statement places them somewhere near the political centre.  That may be true, but if so, the centre is a lot further to the right than it used to be.

Ours is a great country of which people are rightly proud, where the first duty of government must be to defend its people and do whatever it takes to safeguard Britain’s national security.

The idea that the first duty of government is defence comes straight out of the neo-conservative playbook, and it’s highly contentious.  The first duty of government should be this: the welfare of the people is the highest law (or salus populi suprema est lex:  when it’s in Latin, you know the sentiment has been around a long time).   In the course of the last  thirty years we’ve seen a proliferation of new states, and while defence matters. it comes well down the list of priorities.  What people want from their governments is practical benefit, and that’s a long way from what any government in the UK has been trying to do in recent years.

A strong economy means we can invest in our public services.

This one has it the wrong way round.  Investing in public services, and investing in people, is the way to have a strong economy.

The barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination facing individuals should be removed and advancement occur on the basis of merit, with inequalities reduced through the extension of opportunity, giving individuals the skills and means to open new doors and fulfil their ambitions.

Meritocracy and an emphasis of opportunity – the platform of the Conservative Party in the 1960s – are arguments for an unequal society.  Even the United Nations has been able to sign up to something more promising than this, pledging that no-one should be left behind. Anthony Crosland, who many people think of as being on the right of the Labour Party, wrote:

“in Britain equality of opportunity and social mobility … are not enough.  They need … to be combined with measures, above all in the educational field, to equalise the distribution of rewards and privileges so as to diminish the degree of class stratification, the injustice of large inequalities, and the collective discontents which come from too great a dispersion of rewards.”

Back to the Independent Group.

Individuals are capable of taking responsibility if opportunities are offered to them, everybody can and should make a contribution to society and that contribution should be recognised.

It seems that everyone should make a contribution to society.  But some people can’t.  Some are left out, some are shut out, some are pushed out; some will never be able to fill the gap.  When people are vulnerable and disadvantaged, it’s not a good time to look for a contribution.  Some of us believe that people should be protected.  Some of us even think that people might have rights.

I share many of the Independent Group’s concerns about the direction that the Labour Party has taken.  The direction they propose instead is not, however, the direction I’d want to take.


Making people work for their health care

The Economist this week carries an article and an editorial piece about what they are calling “The Arkansas experiment“.  In January 2018 President Trump announced that there would be federal waivers to allow states to introduce a test of ‘community engagement’ for entitlement to Medicaid.  Medicaid is the means-tested system offering support in the US for health care for people of working age; ‘community engagement’ means, more or less, a work test, requiring people to be working, ‘volunteering’, studying or responsible.  Arkansas is so far the only state to implement this, but the Economist notes that 14 other states have applied for similar waivers.

The Economist expresses some doubt about the policy: it is complicated, engagement is difficult to prove in a world of precarious work, and incentivisation is perverse.  The main thing that sick people need before they can work is to be healthy.  But they start with a rather questionable statement of principle:  “The theory behind tying cash benefits to work requirements is sound. Asking people to do something in exchange offer a payment can build political support for welfare programmes”.    Conditionality may well be the price that politicians have to offer to get a programme accepted; that’s not the same as saying that conditionality leads to greater support.  If anything, the polities where people are most determined to impose conditions on the poor are also usually the ones where support is most tenuous.

The “theory” behind work requirements, if it deserves to be called a theory,  is highly questionable.  ‘Activation’ policies, which are supposed to prod unemployed people into work, are based on a series of false premises – that benefits used to  promote unemployment ‘passively’, that the answer to unemployment is more vigorous job-seeking, and that people will not move into work without a spur.  Empirically, activation doesn’t improve job matching; there is some evidence that it can make lead to mismatches, or even slow down the rate at which people move in to employment.  ‘Activation’ for people who are sick – a policy we’re now seeing in the UK, reflected in the treatment of sick people on ESA and Universal Credit – is worse still.  People on these benefits have to ready themselves for work nevertheless – sickness is no excuse.  It’s only a small step from there to the extension of the same principle to health care.  Depression?  Ulcerative colitis?  Congestive heart failure?  Pull yourself together!



A second referendum is not the way out of this mess

If there is a second referendum, there is no good reason to suppose that it will deliver the result that remainers hope for.  I’m basing that view not on opinion polls, but on some old-fashioned political science.  There is no such thing as ‘the will of the people’.  What there is, instead, is a mish-mash of different opinions.  Some people voted ‘leave’ because they were unhappy with the EU; some because they were opposed to immigration; some because they were against capitalism; some because they wanted to return to the 1950s; some because they wanted to give the government a kicking.  Some people voted remain because they like the EU; some because of self-interest; some to avoid disruption; some because of their judgment about the economy; and so on.  Lies or fear may have played a part, on either side, but that’s not decisive; nor is the fact that some people will feel empowered to vote leave, or that other people will strain themselves to get a different result this time.  The more complex an issue is, the more likely it becomes that people with different motivations and preferences will cancel each other out, and the closer the result moves to what you’d expect from a random distribution – a 50-50 split.

Once we start from that position, the result is statistically likely to be decided by a relatively small group of people with a strong, settled opinion, if there is no equivalent group on the other side to oppose them.  The source of this argument is L Penrose, The elementary statistics of majority voting, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 1946.    Bartholomew and Bassett wrote, in Let’s look at the figures, that  “2,000 resolute voters in a population of just over one million can almost always get their way.”   (p 125)  And that’s what happened in 2016.   (There might well have been an equivalent group on the other side – Britons in Europe – but they were largely barred from taking part.)     It’s not the polls that count; it’s the mechanism by which the issue is to be decided.  And without very strong reasons to the contrary, we should expect the same mechanisms and the same process to produce the same result.