“A Just Scotland”?

Last month, just after discussing “caring capitalism“, I spent the day at an event organised by the STUC to consult on A Just Scotland.

The campaign describes this as a “more equal and socially just Scotland”. This is undeniably a worthy aim but it doesn’t actually say what it means by “just”: equal income, wealth, oropportunity? How would we know if we had got there – and can we ever get there?

I’ll admit to being right outside my comfort zone: whilst I had known that it was organised by the STUC, I hadn’t expected it to be quite so old-world (party) political. As an open meeting, covering such a broad, important topic, I had expected a wide range of views and stances. As it is, I was way to the right of just about everyone else there, and there was a somewhat lazy, unquestionning attitude from other attendees (not necessarily the organisers or those speaking from the platform) that everyone there was a socialist of one form or another.

For me, the objective of “a just Scotland” is way beyond politics. Though prompted by the desire to explore what Scotland could be like following a constitutional settlement on independence (or “devo max” or “devo plus” or – whatever!), and the STUC wanting to help shape political thinking, seeking a just Scotland is also way beyond independence: it ought to be a valid political goal whatever the outcome.

As well as old-school politics, the meeting also felt old-school: there were pre-prepared papers from the STUC, and then points from the floor – but little real discussion: the way the meeting and workshops were managed meant the audience could make their points but not really engage in dialogue with each other. I think a freer discussion might have prompted more debate – personally I’d have gone for an “unconference” format to fully explore the issues and come up with actions for engagement (though you would have expected me to say that). I’m a bit worried that by raising the topic and setting a political agenda: it is too easy to then leave it to politicians to deliver; if that had been a good idea, the STUC wouldn’t have needed to have a series of discussions to set the agenda, because politicians would have had social justice as an objective long ago. (I don’t think this is something one can just lay at the door of the coalition – nor even the 1980s, Thatcherite Conservative party: measured by the Gini coefficient, income inequality increased during the last Labour governments.)

Peter Kelly of Poverty Alliance ran through some frankly disturbing statistics on the impact of poverty, particularly on children. He said 20% of children live in low income households. (The Scottish Government’s figures show 15% of the population in “relative poverty”. Interesting, they also show the Gini coefficient for Scotland to be lower than Great Britain as a whole – meaning Scotland has a little less income inequality. I couldn’t find figures for child poverty on the Scottish Government’s site, despite a link saying they’d be there, but the End Child Poverty campaign shows 35% of families with children in Glasgow are on benefits, and whilst the average elsewhere in Scotland comes out at about 18%, the large population of Glasgow might give 20% across the nation. Of course, defining poverty is one of the ongoing difficulties.)

His main point was that these statistics are not fixed: they are the result of choices politicians – and their voters – make. Low pay has persisted for many years; the gap in education between those in poverty and those not lingers for years, with a youth unemployment rate of 12% pre-dating the recession. He saw these as issues of power and democracy – and addressing them would cut across reserved and devolved constitutional powers.

There were several comments from the floor. Most powerfully, I thought, was Andy Myles from Scottish Environment Link, an umbrella body for environmental NGOs, who said that climate change was more important than constitutional change: that is, in making decisions about Scotland, we should ask what it is we want: Scottish Environment Link have set out what they think [pdf], and they are hard to argue with.

Angus Reid read out his “Call For A Constitution” – and again, it is hard to argue with his goals. (This could be an issue: I agree we should have less poverty, more equality, better care for the environment, and everything… I want it all – but there are bound to be some conflicts: do we just leave it to the politicians to decide the priorities?)

These things are of course the nuts and bolts of politics. Someone else pointed out that the political choice people make in Scotland, whilst similar to north England, Wales and Northern Ireland, differ from those of south England, where much of the nation’s wealth is now concentrated.

There were two workshop sessions and several that sounded interesting, so I picked the two that were most closely attuned to my interests. First up was a discussion on the economy and fair taxation. There wasn’t actually much discussion about taxation – somewhat surprising given how much tax has been in the news recently – and a lot about the economy.

Economic arguments seem to be key in the debate about independence – and of course there are rarely clear answers in economics. STUC is calling for changes to the economic model to make it more just – moving to fair, progressive taxation and a distribution of wealth from the rich to the needy; but I couldn’t help thinking that much of the STUC’s thinking is rooted deeply in the old economic model of 20th century industrial orthodoxy – such as seeking to maximise employment. (The STUC’s job is of course to act for the benefit of its members – those employed, largely in the public sector.) As those present discussed way to reintroduce growth to the Scottish economy, I was once again struck by the thought that if radical change is needed, it won’t be obtained by working within the same old economic models which have clearly failed to deliver over the past fifty years.

In a world dominated by global markets, the options for Scotland – independent or otherwise – are limited. Someone pointed out that there is sufficient wealth in the world, but it is unequally distributed. Of course, in global terms, even the poor of Scotland are probably comparatively well off.

The Scottish government does have some limited tax raising powers: it could impose an additional 3% of income tax (the Scottish government held a consultation on local tax raising powers a few years ago – but using such powers might be political suicide), and it controls council tax (held static for several years – a potentially undemocratic, regressive move) and business rates. The Scotland Act 2012 will give the Scottish government more tax raising powers from 2015, although according to Jon Swinney of the SNP, this will only account for 15% of all taxes raised in Scotland. (The rest will be covered by VAT, corporation tax, national insurance and so on.)

There was much discussion of the the nature of currency post independence. There seem to be three options:

  • maintain sterling
  • join the euro
  • establish Scottish “punt”

The last of these seems unfeasible since it would have no value in global markets: transactions with other economies would probably be denominated in pounds, euros or dollars. But if an independent Scotland had sterling or the euro, it would have no control over money supply and interest rates (we have seen how well this has worked for the smaller economies of the euro over the last five years or so). Scotland would thus not control its economy – and not really be independent at all. (For me, this is the killer argument against independence. Economically, it just won’t work.)

The second workshop I attended was on education, participation and democracy. (The briefing paper is apparently missing from the website.) Education is already wholly devolved, and the Scottish education system has always been separate (and many would claim better) than its English counterpart. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (on which I worked several years ago) is designed to deliver learning outcomes appropriate for each learner, for ages from 3 to 18 years (ie pre-school to leaving secondary education) and across all abilities. The curriculum is built around “four capacities” – creating

  • successful learners
  • confident individuals
  • responsible citizens
  • effective contributors

All very laudable, and clearly forming the foundations for a just society, I’d say.

In the discussion, education was suggested as the bedrock of democratic participation, and this is certainly encompassed in the curriculum capacity of “responsible citizens”. But about of quarter of Scots have problems with literacy or numeracy (compared with 16% for England – I’m not sure if the same things are being measured, but it is a guide; for the UK as a whole, about 20% are functionally illiterate). That is quite a big difference, and the Scottish Government has long had a strategy to improve adult literacy. (It also questions Scotland’s apparently superior education system.)

Comparatively low levels of literacy may also hamper economic development – and certainly reduce the options for employment.

It was said that poverty reduces participation in democracy, with a lower turnout in elections in poorer regions than rich. The Electoral Reform Society found a link between social exclusion and political engagement [pdf] – with “near universal association between political participation [electoral and political] and socio-economic status” (p20).

The election for the Scottish Parliament of 2011 had a 50% turnout whilst the turnout in Scottish seats in the UK Parliamentary election of 2010 was 64% – quite a significant difference. The difference is consistent, too: the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election had a turnout of 52% [pdf], the Scottish turnout in the 2005 general election was 61%. I believed devolution was meant to increase engagement, but apparently this hasn’t happened.

After the workshops, there was a debate between Ewan Hunter, representing the “Yes” campagin, and Kezia Dugdale MSP representing “Better Together” (as the “No” campaign has styled itself). Frankly, Dugdale knocked Hunter’s contribution into a cocked hat – but then she is a professional politician. Hunter failed to address the topic of day – that of a just Scotland – focussing instead on the arguments in favour of independence. He highlighted one of the major problems with the Yes campaign – that voters don’t actually know what they will be voting for: the details can’t be worked out until the vote has decided. Sterling or Euro? Inside the EU or not? In NATO or not? Let alone what the financial settlement with Westminster would be – I’m sure HM Treasury would be more than pleased to offload RBS and HBoS and their billions of pounds of debt.

Dugdale did address the issue of a just Scotland, highlighting the SNP had rejected proposals for a “living wage” (which, lets face it, even Tory London mayor Boris Johnson has signed up to – albeit on a voluntary basis). She proposed to devolve power down to give communities more say (the Scottish government consulted on the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill during the summer). My only caveat to Dugdale’s contribution was that her party, Labour, were dominant in the Scottish parliament for two terms, and failed to address the issues of poverty and inequality raised by A Just Scotland.

It was an interesting, challenging day; at a fundamental level, I agree with the objectives of the campaign for A Just Scotland, and believe that they are bigger than political parties and the old arguments between right and left; and indeed bigger than the constitutional settlement. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, these issues should be addressed: how to do that is a much bigger question.

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