A just Scotland: the vision

What is the best way to achieve social justice in Scotland?

As I sat in the basement studio of the Augustine United Church – we were in the middle of the workshop on Fair taxation and a strong economy – I heard the March for Independence go by.

One of the things I found myself saying more than once yesterday at A Just Scotland was that each side in the independence debate manages to convince me of the rightness of the other side.

Except, actually, during the debate that ended the day, between Kezia Dugdale and Ewan Hunter, who were meant to be arguing for Better Together and for Yes Scotland respectively, but in the end settled down to the usual Labour / SNP slanging match with more sensible contributions from the audience than from the debaters. What both Dugdale and Hunter convinced me is that I want to go a different direction from either of them.

On the Better Together side, one of the unquestionable financial benefits for Alastair Darling is that so long as he remains a Westminster MP, he has access to the regular gravy-train of MP expenses – which he has not hesitated to benefit from in the past, by flipping his second-home designation whenever it was profitable to him to do so. And Iain Duncan Smith glutinously letting us know that the Tories intend to make life still worse for disabled Scots. And all of the Labour’s failures to reject the poison of Tony Blair and oppose the austerity agenda of the Tories: the failure of most of the wealthy men of government, whether Labour, Conservative, or LibDem, to understand what life is really like for people on the dole.

On the Yes Scotland side, the evangelical belief by supporters that all they have to do is talk to me about the wonder of being independent and this will convert me, convinces me about as much as when Jehovah’s Witnesses used to do the same thing about their idea of Christianity.

A Just Scotland - Graeme Smith and Peter Kelly
“In a fairer Scotland would almost all the speakers so far have been men?”

(“Have you read the Bible?” they’d ask. “Yes,” I’d say. “Genesis to Revelations, including the laws, the prophets, and the Apocrypha.” And then – do you know the puzzled expression of an evangelical Christian who has lost track of their script? I do – they’d get confuzzled: if I know the Bible so well, they’d wonder, how could I possibly be an atheist? The idea that I could read, understand, and still disbelieve, seemed to be as much beyond their comprehension as the idea of YesScotlanders that one can understand what independence means and still not want particularly to vote Yes in 2014.)

Also, the bare fact that the one vision thing that the SNP do seem to be dead set on for an independent Scotland is cutting the share that businesses pay in the thought that if businesses are taxed less, there’ll be higher growth:

1) Lower corporation tax to 20% (currently 30%) to attract corporate HQ activity to Scotland and to make indigenous businesses more competitive

2) Lower business rates to below the English level (currently significantly higher than in England)

3) Reduce business burdens which have a severe impact on small businesses in particular.

(What they mean by point 3 is less health-and-safety at work. Too much of a burden, you see.) This is “Let Scotland flourish” and if this is the SNP’s vision for Scotland, why would I vote for it?

Ah, but, independence supporters tell me – I’m confusing party policy with constitutional change.

No, I’m not. The SNP is the party for independence. In autumn 2014, I’m led to believe, the SNP want very much for me and all the other Undecideds to make up our mind to vote “Yes”. So their vision for Scotland is presumably what they hope will convince me to vote for independence.

And thus far, the SNP’s goal seems to be simply to move the Crown powers at Westminster to Holyrood: I’ve heard no plans for constitutional change. If their argument is that independence would let Scots have more control over our own government, they need to present their constitutional goal for ensuring that will happen. Indeed, since the SNP claim their goal is to put power back into the hands of the Scottish people, they need to explain why they have not come out fighting for the campaign for REAL local government – which, incidentally, would require unfreezing council tax.

Why should I vote Yes so that First Minister becomes Prime Minister?

I won’t be convinced by ten or fifteen thousand people marching through Edinburgh – or even more, if they increase the numbers in 2013 and 2014 as they said they hoped on Friday. [Between 7 and 10 thousand, according to photo evidence.] The numbers and enthusiasm of the people on the YesScotland side mean nothing unless it translates into a 50%+ majority for Yes at the ballot box: indeed, if in September 2014 there is a huge turnout for the planned third March for Independence, that should convince all the more people who prefer a devolved Scotland to show up at the voting station to vote No. That is the singular disadvantage of mass marches to demand a thing the government have already said we can vote for. A march to change the rule of authority is one thing: a march to demonstrate your numbers and your power to your fellow citizens who do not agree with you is quite another.

Gerry Hassan is right, too: Better Together haven’t conveyed to us their vision of a United Kingdom either. From A Dragon’s Best Friend, in his English-orientated way:

The same could be said for all three of the political parties. None of them appear to have a clear and coherent vision of where they want the country and society to get to, let alone how to get there. If they do, they’ve not communicated it very well.

The Commonwealth Games in 2014 will, I’m sure the SNP hope, provide a similar boost to Scottishness that the Olympics did to Britishness. Yet ATOS is to be a sponsor of the Games and so, as I heard at A Just Scotland over lunch, is Dow Chemical – still looking to boost their global image and have people forget Bhopal. Will the SNP defend ATOS and Dow sponsorship? If they do, what does this say about their vision of an independent Scotland?

We talked about the low turnout at elections – marginally lower in Scotland than in England (Juliet Swann of the Electoral Reform Society was there and had some cogent things to say about the causes) – and I pointed out what the recent local elections had made me realise: for each ward, there are three or four seats, and if contested, five party candidates know three or four of them will get the seats. It’s not democracy, it’s a game of musical chairs.

George Monbiot this June:

The major reason, the [Institute for Public Policy Research] says, is the “‘low-stakes’ character of recent elections”: the major parties “fought on quite similar platforms”. The biggest decline in recent political history – from 1997 to 2001 – lends weight to this contention. In 1997 the young and the poor believed they faced a real political and economic choice. By 2001, Blair had moved Labour so far to the right that there was scarcely a choice to be made.

If Haidt and his admirers were right, the correct strategy would be for Labour, the Democrats and other once progressive parties to swing even further to the right, triangulate even more furiously, and – by seeking to satisfy an apparent appetite for loyalty, authority and sanctity – to join the opposing tribe. But if the real problem is not that working-class voters have switched their voting preferences but that they are not voting at all because there’s too little at stake, the correct political prescription is to do the opposite: to swing further to the left and to emphasise not “order and national greatness” but care and economic justice.

And that brings us back to the vision for social justice, which I spent yesterday talking and thinking (and tweeting!) about. There’s one more A Just Scotland event, in Dundee next Saturday, and a report coming out in November. You can tell them what you think by email – the briefing papers are on the website.

We support the Future of Scotland initiative which seeks to promote a wide ranging and free debate on Scotland’s future and we start from the assumption that the majority of Scots wish to see a more equal and socially just Scotland

– the question being, how to get it?


Filed under Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics

4 responses to “A just Scotland: the vision

  1. Pingback: March for Indy |

  2. A very good piece. It’s tragic that we’ve ended up in a constitutional debate without having the opportunity to think about what we really want as a nation, and *then* working out the powers we need to achieve that. I’m sceptical, however, that we would ever have had that discussion – the referendum is clearly stimulating a wider debate about our future than we would have had otherwise, even if it’s not quite as deep as we’d like. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to picking a side, and while it’s essential that we try to make social justice the central issue in the debate, we’re going to have to vote either Yes or No with a degree of uncertainty about how much better things will be.

    I’m inclined to believe that we’ve got a better chance of achieving greater social justice with independence, because our democracy requires less reform than Westminster, and more representative systems are more likely to produce more socially just governance. I also think that smaller societies are better at getting radical things done, and that independence gives us the opportunity to project new and increasingly influential ideas onto a relatively blank canvas – in the same way that new thinking had a powerful impact on the formation of the new American republic.

    Whenever I get frustrated about the shallow level of debate thus far and get tempted to just ignore it all, I remind myself of a quote from Arthur Miller that my Dad sent me a few years ago when I was making one of those big scary life decisions:

    “There is hardly a week that passes when I don’t ask the unanswerable question: what am I now convinced of that will turn out to be ridiculous? And yet one can’t forever stand on the shore; at some point, filled with indecision, skepticism, reservation and doubt, you either jump in or concede that life is forever elsewhere.”

  3. Danny Zinkus Sutton

    I also really enjoyed this piece.

    Like Rory I think we might have gotten the horse before the cart on our constitution. What are we, as a nation, trying to do and to be? That’s the first question. The next question is then, what are the forms and structures of power sharing, decision making, corporate governance and accountability we need to make that happen.

    I was sad not be able to get the Just Scotland event – I was visiting Aberdeen instead.

    I’m involved with both Unlock Democracy and the ERS. I’d really like to have a conversation with you about your views on the constitution if you would be willing to. So, a serious offer to buy you a beer or a coffee if you would like to talk.

  4. Pingback: March for Indy – Bella Caledonia

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