Between 2000 and 2014, life expectancy in Scotland increased by 16.2 weeks per year for males and 9.9 weeks per year for females, but between 2017 and 2021, life expectancy fell by 14.6 weeks per year for males and 7.9 weeks per year for females. This was the first fall since records began, in the 1950s. Researchers at the National Records for Scotland (NRS) were in little doubt, in September 2022, based on evidence of a much lower life expectancy in more deprived areas, that deprivation was the single major contributor to this tragic fact.
In May 2022, researchers from Glasgow University and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, looking more widely at ‘stalled’ mortality rates, presented their research report ‘Resetting the course for population health: Evidence and recommendations to address stalled mortality improvements in Scotland and the rest of the UK.’
In their report they describe the century-long trend of improving mortality rates in high-income countries, such as the UK, and of course in Scotland, and note the stalling of these improvements from around 2012.
As academic researchers do, they consider a range of possible causes for this trend. They looked at these eight:
- reduced improvements in cardiovascular disease mortality;
- increased drug-related deaths;
- increased deaths due to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease;
- increased deaths due to influenza;
- increased prevalence of obesity;
- demographic factors;
- UK Government economic ‘austerity’ policies (implemented as cuts to public spending including social security and important services);
- and increased deaths due to weather and temperature extremes.
Like many of you reading this, I jumped quickly to No.7, but first impressions have been wrong before, so I read on.
After thorough examination of all of the above, the researchers found that while obesity trends will have had some minor effect, only one factor, austerity, will have made “an important and substantial contribution.”
We must be grateful to the researchers for confirming our first impressions.
The researchers then make a number of recommendations for both Scottish and UK Government actions to reduce inequality and poverty
We can only agree with those wide-ranging recommendations that they make for the UK Government, including both macroeconomic policies to reduce inequality and major increases to a range of benefits. Though challenging for any government these are possible due to the UK Government’s full autonomy in taxing, investing and in borrowing. As they did to fund a range of responses to the Covid 19 pandemic, the UK Government is able to borrow large sums to then invest in policies aimed at restoring the quality of public services and the personal incomes that might then return us to progress in reducing mortality rates and in extending life expectancy. Equally, they could introduce more progressive taxes aimed at increasing the Government’s revenue from the massively profitable corporations, from property, and from the super-rich, that could then be redistributed toward those most in need and who, currently, are the major victims of increased mortality rates and falling life expectancies.
When they turn to the Scottish Government, the researchers suggest that it use its fiscal powers to top up reserved benefits and reverse UK cuts, create new benefits, increase existing benefits to support those in low-income households and increase the Scottish Child Payment to £40 per week to meet child poverty reduction targets.
Compensating for the harshness of the UK Government by cutting other, often important, budgets, cannot offer a longer-term sustainable solution for Scotland.
There is, of course, a more effective, sustainable way.
Why doesn’t Scotland become an independent country, like Ireland or Denmark or many others, introduce a fairer, more progressive taxation system, including on property and on energy production as Norway has done, borrow where necessary as all other countries can, and grow their economy within the EU, as Ireland has done so well? Then we could, as other countries, where life expectancy has not stalled, have done and invest in creating the more equal society supported by high quality public services, necessary to reverse this fatal trend, due as the researchers confirm, to the UK Government’s policies over the last decade.
There are several other pieces of evidence that show what a little autonomy has already done, such as Scotland’s far higher build of affordable housing and related significantly lower rates of poverty and especially child poverty but the researchers just ask the Scottish Government to do more, knowing, as they must in the back of their minds, that lacking those full fiscal powers, means they cannot.
Scotland suffers the same sharp inequalities of the other parts of the UK because it is part of a state shackled to this kind of life for its working people. The Labour Party in the UK has failed to do much about this because it cannot expect to win elections if it diverges too far from that dominant right-of-centre politics. Almost every other country in Europe is less unequal than Scotland, not because of a lack of more egalitarian values here but because we are not free to apply them.