FOR the past few years, two issues have towered over the media landscape like a couple of giant twin peaks, obscuring everything else in dark shadows. These days it’s impossible to pick up a newspaper, switch on the radio or scroll through social media without being blitzed by a barrage of news stories and opinion columns analysing the latest twists and turns of the Brexit fiasco. And in Scotland, the debate over independence is here to stay at least until we have a new referendum.

These two big political battles have politicised people in Scotland, and across the UK, on a scale probably not seen since the epic miners’ strike of 1984-85 forced almost everyone to take sides. And that’s good because politics is too important to be left in the hands of professional politicians.

The downside is that amid the drama of a divided Westminster Parliament and the roar of the rival crowds absorbed with these mighty constitutional debates, everything else is being drowned out, not least the burning social questions whose answers will determine what Scotland will look like in the years and decades to come, beyond Brexit and independence.

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Over these past couple of weeks, I’ve been inspired by the overwhelming response to my friend Roz Paterson’s appeal for help to fund a life-saving trip for cancer treatment in Boston. Compassion, empathy and kindness have spread like wildfire, demonstrating that there are plenty of people in this country and beyond with big hearts. It shows that most people’s default position is to care about others and pitch in to help.

This appetite for compassion needs to be nurtured and nourished. Which is why I believe independence supporters should avoid becoming totally mired in constitutional politics to the exclusion of all else. We may have different priorities and even different visions for a future Scotland, but the essential principle of social justice should be at the heart of our mission to take control of our own destiny. Yesterday, a story trailed across the front page of a Sunday tabloid reported that some parents are going hungry for days at time so they can feed their children. At Broomloan Nursery in Govan, Glasgow, one desperate mum was found to be squirrelling away sandwiches at a Christmas party to make sure her children had food to eat at Christmas.

Yes, it is Westminster that determines the level of most benefits, and the budget available to pay for them, but the Scottish Parliament has been adept at using its powers creatively where it can. And I would urge the wider independence movement to be more involved in working out how we can continue to use those powers creatively. We need to demonstrate in deeds as well as words the difference that can be made when power is closer to home.

If we abolish council tax, for example, and replace it with something more progressive that raises more money, maybe councils could offer free school meals to all pupils? And maybe the school clothing grant could be doubled. That won’t end child poverty, but it would make an important start and send a clear message about where the independence movement stands. And, to those who are worried we can’t afford to start reducing child poverty, I would suggest we can’t afford not to.

Take the costs of crime to wider society. Children who grow up in an environment that deprives them of food, clothing, shoes, hope and expectation, can get angry with themselves and with the world. And stressed parents struggling with poverty can intensify that trauma. Many children start to believe it is their own fault. They make excuses to avoid PE and school trips because they don’t have gym shoes or money. And all the time, they are bombarded with adverts for gadgets and clothes and holidays they will never be able to afford.

They internalise hurt and shame and develop mental illnesses that make life even harder. Poorer children are more likely to suffer early loss and bereavement. Poor communities are often more violent communities. And that’s because there’s a lot of anger and trauma around. Some children when emerging into adulthood turn to alcohol and drugs to blot out the pain. And that all too often leads them into a life of petty crime to fund habits they can’t afford. Some people, young men in particular, can start to see crime as the only practical way of achieving any status or the possessions they must have.

There is an ongoing debate about the age of criminal responsibility. Right now, the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland is eight. In England, it is 10. Nowhere else in Europe are such young children held criminally responsible. In practice, no eight-year-olds ever appear in Scottish courts but it’s an anachronism that needs to go. The Scottish Parliament is now considering whether to raise the age to 12 – although the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child say the minimum should be 14.

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Some children’s charities and politicians go further and argue it should be much higher – 16 for example. Last week the Lord Advocate intervened to point out that some children do commit serious crimes, such as robbery, serious assaults, supplying drugs and sex offences. That is true. But it obscures the complex realities of the lives of these young people who, before they’ve even got through school, have given up any expectation of fitting into wider society.

I know, through my work, that the vast majority of “criminals” (certainly those who are caught) are people the world gave up on almost as soon as they were born. This is not the world of crime drama, with deviously intelligent super-villains. Most experienced dire poverty and trauma in their early lives. Before we make up our minds about whether to prosecute children for crimes, we should be asking why they commit them?

It should be blatantly obvious why some children and young people steal. But what about more serious crime? Why do young boys feel entitled to use the bodies of girls? Where do they learn that if not from us? Why are 15, 16 and 17-year olds being recruited by 21st-century Fagins to supply drugs to their traumatised pals? Why do young men, and some young women, resort to violence? What are we doing about it?

All the research is conclusive: processing children through adult courts is ineffective. It almost guarantees they are sent on a life-long, one-way journey into the world of criminality, with repeated spells of imprisonment usually followed by early death. The whole area of criminality is difficult for politicians in the face of a frenzied tabloid news culture. But we stood up to racism, sexism and homophobia in the past – and we’re a far more civilised society as a result.

How we deal with criminality among children might not be the easiest discussion, but it’s crucial for the whole independence movement to engage in such topics. That way, we can show we’re serious about continuing our journey towards a genuinely progressive society.