Horses for Courses

Posted: 21 January 2013, in Blog

Horses for Courses

Were you surprised that burgers costing less than £1 each or even 4 for £1 contained horsemeat? It never ceases to amaze me that the commentariat and rent a quote politicians can get all het up when anyone who cares to look can see that poor folk often eat nutritional garbage (aka junk food) and that supermarkets and fast food joints market it very well to the target audience. The same applies with cheap booze.

Sir Harry Burns of this manor has commented recently that radical action is needed to deal with the problem of why Glasgow continues to be a health gulag for so many poor folk. Apparently all the previous health education stuff works with better off folk but the Glasgow sink estate problem remains intractable.

Sir Harry’s ideas are said to include initiatives around better parenting to tackle poor lifestyle choices which can lead to obesity, heart disease and cancer. He also notes that a stronger sense of community is needed, pregnant women need help with parenting and that poor folk need taught how to bond with kids and support their learning. I’d add that all, but especially poor single women, need help to avoid pregnancy but that is just me being radical or is that conservative?

Is being socially conservative and fretting on poor lifestyle choices made by poor folk (who have very few alternative choices to make in any case) the new radicalism? I realise that my views on young pregnant women can equally be portrayed as right wing patronising condescension and really unhelpful. However, if radical action is needed can we not get over our politically correct sensibilities and just not say that some things (youth pregnancy, sexual ill health, obesity, abusive lifestyles and consumption etc) are just plain wrong or are we too feart to upset anyone and constrained by the fear that in constructively criticising poor lifestyle choices and behaviours this places us too close to Tory backwoodsmen.

This sort of stuff intrigues me because of the impact that moral relativism around individual rights and lifestyle choices has had on our society. What I get from Sir Harry is that there are benchmark standards of consumption, lifestyle and health choices that are essentially non-negotiable if you want a full and rewarding life. We all know that just telling folk to lay off cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and to eat healthily and exercise does not work so how do we educate, inform and incentivise poor folk to make better choices.

Are we starting to say that (if you are poor) being unhealthy is becoming unaffordable and unacceptable to society, taxpayers, health professionals, educationalists, politicians, media commentators etc and that being “guilty” of making poor choices will in future carry some sort of penalty to stimulate better (more moral?) behaviours?

I can still remember John Reid (the former Celtic Chairman, and English and Welsh Health Secretary) offering the quote that “…poorer people regard smoking as one of the few pleasures they have access to…” Interesting that the old tough supported the right to smoke as a palliative for being poor. Not many Health Secretaries have done that.

His concerns seemed to be about patronising poorer people and that the poor don’t have the same circumstances as others therefore we should not expect or force them to make the sort of choices that the better off make. Is that not defeatist? Does Sir Harry recognise that the unthinkable needs to be thought.

To encourage radical thought we need to be truthful about sink estates and not ignore inequality by sentimentalising some sort of Glasgow working class mythology. The traditional stairheid communities with social, cultural, religious and political capital and with aspiration tied to educational advancement don’t exist anymore. The sink estates have succumbed to structural unemployment, social breakdown and political abandonment. In addition, they have lacked solidarity with a political class and wider establishment that has attempted to tell poor folk what to do and been surprised when they have not responded appropriately. These estates are now characterised by community anomie and populated by a disconnected, disparaged, unhealthy and early dying underclass with no resources under their control to alter their lives.

Here are some of my radical political thoughts.

  1. We need to address market supply. Sink estates should have a maximum number of shops licensed to sell alcohol and cigarettes linked to population size and demographics.
  2. Schools in sink estates should teach home economics and/or food and nutrition as compulsory subjects and PE also needs to form a significant part of the core timetable. The reason for this is that poor kids won’t get any of this at home – even in a loving home because too many parents don’t know how to provide this. If they are hungry, unhealthy, tired and unfit, kids won’t learn anything anyway.
  3. Fast food licenses need to be restricted and these businesses need to be thought of in the same way as we think of pubs. Keep them away from school locations and limit their number.
  4. No politician should be given a ministerial appointment if they are obese or smoke.
  5. The bar at our parliament should be closed.
  6. Decriminalise drugs and develop social (health) enterprises (based in Health Centres) to supply drugs on a commercial basis. There are too many opportunities for greed and exploitation if we allow the private sector to do this. Profits would be poured into community health and lifestyle programmes.

From a social enterprise point of view, my advice to Sir Harry would be that radical action requires Big Government to be cut. This is already happening in England but in the wrong way. Down there, the private sector is rampaging through the health and welfare system and we all know where that will end up and who will have to pick up the pieces.

This is crazily enough, being facilitated by some social enterprise leaders with their Social Impact Bond, Big Society Capital and Social Enterprise Mark activities. In their desperation to cosy up to the Coalition they have neglected their duty to protect the sector from Gombeen men and folk masquerading as us.

Our problems are different. SENSCOT and others quite rightly defend the principle of asset locks etc as a way of safeguarding Scottish social enterprises but we desperately need to tackle the soft left, Big Government supporting (morally relativist?) consensus in Scotland if we are to tackle these health gulag problems.

If you are poor, unhealthy, unemployable and live in a sink estate then the State in some guise or other; houses, educates, pays for, medicates and patrols your life. Successful people have lives independent of the State. This should be an indicator of success for Sir Harry and his chums. We need to be able to measure the ability of poor folk to tell the State to leave them alone because they are autonomously capable of positive actions and have ideas and desires that are no business of the State.

What might help are (some) alternative solutions where the individual trades with social enterprises as a consumer of services not as a client or beneficiary of the State. This ain’t easy because you are asking for professional and government folk to radically change what they are doing on the basis that what they are doing (and have been doing for years) isn’t working and that to do the same thing and expect different results is madness.

Getting poor folk to abandon passive clientelism and to trade responsibly (and ethically/morally?) is also an enormous challenge because we are starting from a position where we know some of them won’t or can’t. The dysfunctional are unable to do this without radical forms of support and the State has ably demonstrated that it cannot provide this.

The elephant in the room however is querying whether social entrepreneurs want to do this stuff either? I ask because at a recent debate about social enterprise the core message that social enterprises need to trade was accepted as non-controversial. The corollary that spending a grant isn’t trading was not welcomed so readily. However, social enterprises during this debate were described as preferring to and largely trading with the State and hardly if at all with individuals.

Now call me an old curmudgeon but I think that credit unions, social landlords and co-ops do trade with individuals and that some social enterprises through cafes and the like have dipped their toes into personal consumer markets but their experience has been mixed. This is because these are difficult markets with high business death rates and a nice mission statement does not alter the economics or business model of these businesses. If most social enterprises are, or aspire to, or continue to be clients/partners/sub-contractors of the State are we ever going to be radical and change anything either?

Back to food. I note that Aberdeen Foyer (an excellent social enterprise) closed its restaurant and gallery recently. Trading conditions were cited as being extremely difficult. I hope that they return to consumer markets soon. I think that this business failure should however be debated/analysed by all Scottish social entrepreneurs from the perspective that we need to improve our understanding of what it is like to work, fail and succeed in personal consumer markets.

The post 45 welfare norms and systems are failing in front of us and waiting for a temporary economic cycle upturn does not address the structural, demographic and technological issues facing us. The power of markets and the pressure on public finances means that Big Government with all the ideas, solutions, power and resources is inevitably next for the chop although its demise won’t be pretty – particularly in Scotland.

Social enterprises need to get into and trade in personal consumer markets if they want to change paradigms and shape social change rather than continue to be passive observers waiting for downstream service level agreements.

Maybe Sir Harry and his pals could set one up…


NOTE: This opinion piece blog does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of Social Enterprise Scotland.