For a Socially Just Scotland

Gregor Gall looks at what a socially just Scotland would look like and how that differs from the vision of the Scottish National Party.

Saltires on N30 strike demo
Saltires on N30 strike demo

The now unfolding public 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 and constitutional wrangles, it should be relatively easy to ask the mainstream political parties and opinion-formers just what is their vision for a socially just Scotland is. And, if they come up short, 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.

“Progressive Beacon”?

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 the Republic became massively unequal despite the overall economic growth and 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 could be seen by Salmond’s welcoming on two recent occasions 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 receipt of public funds that Amazon 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.

Social Justice

In other words, the notion of genuine and deep-seated social justice (never mind 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.

Jock Tamson’s Bairns

The phrase ‘we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns’ still means a lot in Scotland and indicate 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 an opportunity to advance a radical left agenda. 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). 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, University of Hertfordshire

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2 thoughts on “For a Socially Just Scotland”

  1. Retaining the Sterling/Sterling link has the same problem as jiinong the Euro: namely we wone28099t have control of our monetary policy or exchange rates. Without significant convergence with the Rest of the UK (specifically England given their dominating economy), major imbalances will build up. Wee28099d either end up in an investment boom and bust (like Ireland and Spain) or stagnation and gradual debt build up (like Greece, Italy and Portugal).Leaving aside previous complaints that our economies arene28099t converged at the moment (and that BoE interest rates didne28099t take into account Scotland) and assuming that our economies are indeed converged today e28093 there is no guarantee that will remain the case after independence. Especially if Scotland begins to pursue an independent fiscal policy, or oil prices flunctuate significantly.This is likely when you consider that one of the main arguments for independence is that it will lead to better economic performance for Scotland e28093 effectively acknowledging that the economy is expected to diverge from Englande28099s.Theree28099s another issue with the sterling link/Euro: an independent Scottish government would not be an issuer of its own currency e28093 its bonds would be subject to default risk, meaning higher interest rates. This is what wee28099re seeing in Greece (and potentially other PIIGS). A Government that issues its own currency can avoid default by simply devaluing, which tends to be less damaging than a liquidty-driven default. You can get away with that if you have a track record (just look at the pound).Which brings us to the Scottish Government issuing its own currency. With no track record, the new currency would immediately depreciate away from the presumed 1:1 exchange rate with Pound Sterling. This is partly because ite28099s a new currency of a relatively small country (with no track record) and partly because the pound sterling is a minor reserve currency with the lower interest rate benefits.The new Central Bank of Scotland (or whoever controls Scottish monetary policy) would have to decide between increasing interest rates to maintain parity e28093 strangling the economic growth promised by independence e28093 or allowing the currency to depreciate, increasing the real value of debts denominated in Pound Sterling (theree28099s no getting away from the fact that an independent Scotland will have to assume some of the UK National Debt (either on per-population or per-GDP basis) and increasing the cost of imports e28093 which while good for our export businesses, will reduce the standard of living for Scottish consumers.This is why the issue of currency in an independent Scotland is about more just the state of the Euro at the time or whether David Cameron will take his ball home..

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