VERY few aspects of life in modern Britain, it seems, have not been subject to improvement and a gentle patina of enlightenment in the course of the last century or so. In our civilised society we like to think we strike the right balance between the needs of the individual and those of the wider population.

We no longer send children up chimneys or send debtors to poor-houses. We’ve abolished capital punishment and you can’t be locked up for being gay or having gay sex. Universal suffrage has been extended to all women and you can’t be dismissed from your job if you are a member of a trade union. Employers must pay a minimum wage and contribute to a work pension for their employees. The right to paid holidays and time off for illness and pregnancy was established long ago. We no longer lock up children and strive to avoid detaining them in any form of incarceration, choosing to view even the most seemingly irredeemable as victims or at least deeply troubled.

The welfare state was designed to shelter UK citizens from the uncertainties and vagaries of the free market economy and from the unjust capriciousness of health and wellbeing. It is a sacred contract between the individual and the state that captures the essence of marriage vows: in sickness and in health; for better or for worse; until death us do part.

Certainly, some of these improvements ought to have been introduced far earlier than they were but they’re here now and our main task must be to protect them from groups hell-bent on un-stitching them in their attempts to re-create the dubious glories of Britain’s past. You may wish to criticise some aspects of the way that health is delivered in Scotland but thus far we have managed to protect it from the ongoing, stealthy privatisation of the NHS in England and Wales, where the most lucrative services are auctioned off to privateers and their shareholders (including the assorted spouses of Tory cabinet ministers). Our worst Brexit nightmare, which returns to haunt us every time Jacob Rees-Mogg opens his mouth, is that the UK falls into the hands of those who would seek to reverse each of our hard-won liberties. They see themselves as keepers of a flame that has never quite been extinguished even as our more tolerant and liberal society emerged.

Whenever Rees-Mogg and his acolytes such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Liam Fox tell us Brexit will bring a period of uncertainty, what they really mean is it will bring uncertainty to everyone but them and those whose family fortunes and connections will similarly provide a degree of insulation.

The prospect of food shortages and a scarcity of medicines may horrify the rest of us but to each of the Brexit princes it brings joy. For when demand outstrips supply capitalism; the free market economy and the profit margin all gather to feed and greedily. We already permit pharmaceutical companies, banks and energy suppliers to operate a black market of sorts. When that extends to basic food supplies and medicines it will be the triumph of unfettered capitalism and the poor fools who voted for it won’t get any help from those they helped to fill their boots on their folly.


Scotland’s prison rates show need for big change

CURIOUSLY, one area of UK life has remained impervious to progressive change during the course of the last century. Arguably, it has got worse. Somehow we have failed to find an alternative to locking up large parts of our population.

In Scotland, according to official government records, the average daily prison population increased from just under 2700 in 1900 to just under 7552 in 2016/17 (more than double). It is projected to be 7800 in 2022. From the mid-1940s Scotland’s prison population increased steadily until the 1970s where it remained stable. Yet, since 1990 the prison population again increased by 62%, reaching a peak of 8179 in 2011/12, a period when you might have expected it to reduce as we began to embrace an ever more liberal and tolerant attitude in other aspects of the life of the nation.

The average daily prison population in Scotland has increased by 180% in the period between 1900 and 2016/17. In providing some kind of context we should look at this figure alongside the general growth of our population. This has increased from approximately three million adults in 1900 to 4.5 million in 2016-17, an increase of 50%. Across the UK we have one of the highest prison populations in Europe. According to the Howard league Scotland the average cost per prisoner for Scotland for 2013/14 was more than £33,000.

Another curiosity is apparent here. You would expect those of a conservative disposition to cavil at needless cost yet whenever alternatives to jail terms are being considered for minor offences they begin to squeal about “soft-touch Scotland”. And when any initiatives aimed at addressing poverty and deprivation – the eternal harbingers of crime – are explored they are keen to cite the cost to the public purse while conveniently ignoring the high rates of re-offending.


Smokes and mirrors

A HALLMARK of assorted Scottish administrations since devolution is the desire to make this country one of the most enlightened and compassionate in Europe. We have embedded respect and equality for minorities and free care for the elderly while resisting as much as possible the worst effects of Tory austerity policies.

During this period, though, we have refused to allow prisoners the right to vote and only reluctantly (and at great expense) did we end slopping out in prisons and pay compensation for not ending this practice sooner. Now, we are soon to ban smoking in Scottish prisons. Good luck with that one.

I can almost understand the desire to stop smoking in the small, enclosed space of a cell. Why, though, could a designated public place within a prison not be set aside for smokers? Perhaps I’m missing something obvious here. Could this be a crafty government ruse designed to reduce our prison population?

Why, surely the chaps with the caps, masks and stripey jumpers will now think twice about breaking into No 21 when faced with the prospect of a stretch without the solace of a wee Bennie now and then? And why stop there? Let’s also ban books (some of these can be dangerous) music (especially the dark, satanic rock stuff) and art (unless of course it is by prior approval of a penal body established to root out anything troublesome or liable to give the lags ideas).

And has anyone mentioned prolonged exposure to daylight? At this rate even the most incorrigible repeat offenders will from henceforth forward seek to embrace the rule of law. Hurrah.