Mark Smith: What Nicola Sturgeon could learn from the Queen of the Netherlands

Summer 1992. The Queen of the Netherlands is visiting Scotland to open an exhibition of Dutch masters at the National Gallery but she doesn’t just want to see museums and castles – what’s a castle to a queen? – she also wants to see the real Scotland; she wants to see what life can be like for people, especially people struggling with deprivation; she wants to see a place in Glasgow called Castlemilk.

And so that is what the Queen does. She eschews the big houses and beauty spots lined up by British officials and instead pops into The Jeely Piece Club, a charity that helps children living on the estate, where she samples one of the famous pieces. Very nice, she thinks. But the Queen is also shocked by what she sees around her. The deprivation. The poverty. The reality.

The extent of her shock was revealed in a report from the British Embassy in the Hague, which was written after the visit and has only now been released, 30 years on. “The Dutch visitors,” said the report, “were struck by how less prosperous certain parts of Scotland, such as Glasgow, appeared to be than the level of prosperity they normally encountered in England.”

In some ways, the royal comparison was unfair – comparing the poorest parts of Scotland with prosperous parts of England is always going to look more shocking than comparing regions that are dealing with similar issues. By the 1990s, Castlemilk was also dealing with a problem faced by many other parts of the UK, which is that well-meaning schemes dreamed up in the 60s had turned out not to be so good after all and were badly managed. Castlemilk wasn’t, and isn’t, unique.

But the uncomfortable truth is that, should the Dutch royal family come to visit Scotland again, they’d discover not only that the problem of poverty is still serious but that it has in fact got worse. Since 2015, child poverty has risen in every one of Scotland’s council areas, and all the other problems associated with poverty have also worsened. Homelessness. Worse. Drug deaths. Worse. Alcohol deaths. Worse. If you thought poverty was bad in the 90s, how about now?

What makes the situation even more troubling, I think, is that the Scottish Government has said poverty is actually its priority at the same time that poverty has got worse. I spoke to Jim Sillars about this recently and his verdict was scathing. “We’ve declared war on poverty so many times and have been defeated so many times but don’t admit it,” he told me. He also had some choice words to say about the government’s performance on education, health and housing, all of which boiled down to: it’s got worse, much worse.

One thing the First Minister could do in response – and it strikes me as extraordinary that she hasn’t – is visibly, publicly and practically prioritise poverty by regularly visiting places like Castlemilk as well as other parts of the country struggling with deprivation. In that sense, she could learn a lesson from the Queen of the Netherlands. Get out there. Go and look. And then do something.

To be fair, there are some signs Sturgeon may be listening. Her recent visit to the drug recovery centre in Haghill, for example, was a good idea. The Government also seems to have – finally, finally – accepted the argument that allowing the number of rehab places to decline in Scotland was a catastrophe and it has promised to spend £100million on rehab in the next five years. There is only one possible verdict on that: better late than never.

But it’s also striking how little the First Minister seems to talk about poverty, given that it is apparently one of her priorities. Perhaps she might feel more inclined to do so if she visited more places affected by it. So, I would like to invite her, here and now, to visit the village where I live, which is one of the poorest in Scotland. Come down to New Cumnock First Minister and see it for yourself. There’s been a lot of progress here but there’s still a lot to do. We could do with your help.

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