The now unfolding debate on independence in the run up to the referendum in late 2014 provides for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put the case for a socially just Scotland. So long as the debate is not parked in the cul-de-sac of constitutional politics or wrangles around the number of questions or the detail of questions themselves on the ballot paper, it should be relatively easy to ask the mainstream political parties and opinion-formers just what exactly is their vision for a socially just Scotland is.
For example, of the ‘no’ campaign, is it asking citizens in Scotland to stay in the union in order to enjoy the benefits of another decade of austerity and cuts in public services and the maintenance of an unregulated financial sector which did so much to precipitate the economic crisis we continue to suffer? And, if they come up short (as I believe they inevitably will), then use the occasion to put forward a radical vision of what is needed to achieve a socially just Scotland. This is because there is no point having the debate, the referendum or voting for independence (or ‘devo-max’ if it makes it on to the ballot paper) unless we can imagine a better, more socially justice and equal society in Scotland. So a lot is up for grabs.
The SNP in particular has a blind spot in any search for a socially just, independent Scotland because while it has some reflexes to the left on social issues, it is positively neo-liberal in its economic policies. And economics easily trumps social issues in the capitalist mainstream.
So for Salmond to have recently pronounced that Scotland after independence – under the SNP – could become a ‘progressive beacon’ for other countries is, frankly, way off the mark. This is because the centre piece of the SNP politics is not so much an independent state under capitalism – which it is – but that through state-sponsored trickledown economics, the economy in Scotland can grow and everyone and their living standards will be levelled up in the process. The key policy in all this is to cut the rate of corporation tax to something like that of the Irish Republic. But we must recall that the Republic became massively unequal despite the overall economic growth and that such a pursuit of inward investment as part of a programme of economic deregulation created the conditions for the extended age of austerity that Irish citizens are now experiencing after the ‘boom’ turned to ‘bust’.
In economic terms, Salmond and the SNP take the view that all new jobs are good jobs regardless of their terms and conditions. This was shown on two recent occassions by his welcoming of Amazon’s investment in Scotland. He did not even think to attach any conditions – like those of union recognition or a living wage – to the public funds that the company received for making these investments. Jobs that create spending power to the SNP are the source of economic and social betterment. But it does matter what kind of jobs are created and how they are remunerated. It also matters that they are secure jobs. Equally, it matters that low paid jobs should not be subsidised by a social wage because, in effect, this means the taxpayer is subsidising employers and letting them off from paying a level of wages that requires no social wage prop up.
In other words, the notion of genuine and deep-seated social justice (never mind full blown social democracy or even socialism) is absent from the SNP’s economic policy. Salmond wants to create economic growth and let others determine who benefits from it. In effect, this means the employers and existing power elites will make these decisions. That is probably why many employers are not fazed by independence and many are for it – especially if corporation tax is lowered.
It then seems that the SNP’s ability to win the ‘yes’ vote in the referendum is – all other things being equal – very much weakened but its inability, if not unwillingness, to demonstrate how and why an independent Scotland could and would be better for the mass of citizens in Scotland. This is not to say that the SNP is not a socialist party – clearly, it is not – but that it is hardly even a social democratic party either. Social democracy is defined not just as the search for social justice within capitalism but the willingness and ability to do so through progressive reforms where state intervention ameliorates the processes and outcomes of the market. In other words, reforms.
The vision on the left which supports independence should stress above all else the possibility of determining people’s own economic relations and, thus, social destiny. Whilst a republic should be part of this vision (especially as the SNP wants to maintain a constitutional monarchy), the key reason why citizens should vote at all and for independence will hinge upon whether they believe their living standards and those of their kids will be better in terms of jobs, health, education and so on.
But this in itself is not enough because a vision of this better life could be a neo-liberal one of growth and expansion as per the SNP. The two extra ingredients that are needed are a) a more just and equal society and b) an environmentally sustainable one. The senior voices within the SNP saying that an independent Scotland would be a Scotland free from poverty are audible by their very silence here. Moreover, and as the leader of the Greens, Patrick Harvie MSP, has been at pains to point out the SNP believes that the market can be harnessed to deliver upon environmental sustainability.
The phrase ‘we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns’ still means a lot in Scotland and indicates that the political centre of gravity is to the left and essentially social democratic on many issues. In order to provide a representation and outlet for the values bound up with ‘Jock Tamson’s bairns’, the arguments for independence must comprise arguments for a redistribution of wealth – something that will scare many of the SNP’s business supporters. Equally well, we cannot allow the progressive vision of an independent Scotland to be one of economic growth at all costs – even assuming it was more fairly distributed – because of the environmental devastation that would create.
None of this makes an argument for or against independence as such. The key issue is whether the situation of independence is a more convincing opportunity to advance a radical left agenda – and far more so than under a devo-max scenario as the like of the CPB and Campaign for Socialism (within the Labour Party) seem to think.. And it seems, there is far more of a possibility to do so in the run up to and under independence than under the status quo (whether of ‘devo-max’ or not). Certainly, there is no reason not to suspect whether some of the political parties current support for ‘devo-max’ is a ruse to avoid independence but not deliver upon greater fiscal autonomy.
I use the term ‘possibility’ rather than ‘probability’ because the weakness of the left cannot suddenly be magically solved under independence. However, with the focus of debate likely to be on ‘what kind of Scotland do we want?’ and with more latitude to determine this in Scotland itself than ever before, the argument for independence seems substantially stronger than the argument against.
Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire but lives in Edinburgh. He is the author of The Political Economy of Scotland – Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? (UWP, 2005) and Tommy Sheridan – from hero to zero? A political biography (WAP, 2012).