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The ‘Shrinking Pot’? Pay, Tax & Public Misconceptions

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The UK is a particularly unequal country – by some measures it is the fourth most unequal in the developed world. And we’re the second lowest pay economy of the advanced economies. To put that in perspective, only one in five people working in Scotland today earn between £25,000 and £35,000 a year. Three out of five working Scots earn less than £25,000 a year and half earn less than £21,000. One in three working Scots earn less than £14,000 a year. If you earn £43,000 you are doing better (mainly much better) than nine out of ten working Scots. We have a chronic low-pay, unequal economy.

In terms of tax, this is incredibly inefficient. As we shall see later, the annual cost of using tax credits to subsidise people earning the minimum wage of £6.31 an hour up to the living wage of £7.65 an hour is quarter of a billion pounds alone. We spend an incredible amount of national wealth subsidising low-pay employment. Meanwhile, because so few people are in well-paid employment, only a minority of people in work pay more in tax than they receive in tax credits, benefits and services. Low-pay economies put enormous pressure on public finances. 

From the Common Weal book, p.27-28

 

Public spending is fundamentally misunderstood – and cynically misrepresented. If most people are not earning enough to pay much tax – and worse, earning so little that quarter of  a billion goes on tax credits to keep them just above the poverty line – then the public purse does of course come under huge pressure.

The answer is not to push through further cuts to public expenditure, but to implement higher wages and lower unemployment, so that people can pay tax!  That’s how a domestic economy works!  The analogy used by the Common Weal to emphasise this cyclical nature of the economy is that of a heart pumping blood around the body – not trickling it down from the top.  The trickle-down misconception is unfortunately very common – progressive reforms are often met with cries of “But where will the money come from!??”.  As if there were only a few shrinking pots of state expenditure.  This is how people see government spending, by and large.  This view, unsurprisingly, creates anxiety and fear about public spending and welfare.  “The money’s running out!  The recession! Tighten your belts! Shelve those naïve ideals of social spending, free childcare, accept privatisation, because hey, there’s just nothing left.”

© Jeremy Schultz, Flickr

The problem is that in a ‘pocket-money parliament’, without full control over fiscal policy, it is to an extent just a pot of money getting allocated to certain areas of public spending.  This pot is the Barnett formula, the money doled out to Holyrood from the Treasury, which despite (another) popular misconception, does not exceed the amount of tax raised in Scotland, but vice versa (and I wonder what’ll happen to Scotland’s budget if we vote no, eh).  The SNP were heavily criticised for not having already introduced free childcare whilst they’ve been in government.  But the whole point is that the policy would be paid for using the tax revenues generated through women being able to enter the labour market – it’s cyclical. If these revenues flow to the Treasury and do not come back, there will clearly be a problem sustaining the policy.

That’s why such policies as free childcare and other progressive reforms are not about tweaking and adjusting bits of spending and taxation.  Instead you need to take a holistic view of the economy, recognising that income inequality and low tax revenues (serious problems for the UK) are intrinsically linked, and must be addressed together.

This is about moving away from the ‘sticking plaster’ approach which has characterised attempts to deal with Scotland’s problems for so long.  A transformational approach is needed, moving towards an economy characterised by high (and sustainable) investment and productivity, and high-paying jobs; boosting tax revenues, income equality and overall well-being.  As Robin McAlpine is fond of pointing out, wealth and value come from work, rather than these mythical ‘wealth creators’ who we’re supposed to cherish above all.

Essentially the economy is meant to be a system for social provision.  Work and taxation – creating value, distributing resources, building and ensuring prosperity and equality and growth.  Is this what is happening in our economy?  Very clearly not.  The Common Weal proposals note that instead of social provision, the current system is geared towards social extraction.  Public wealth and value is extracted into private hands on a massive scale; our economy is characterised by vast numbers of low-pay, low-skill jobs, and monopoly multinational ownership.  Few can benefit from this situation, and it is extremely unsustainable, creating spiralling inequality, poverty and a crumbling tax base.  We only need to look across the North sea for societies which do not use this model; it’s not utopian or naïve to outline exactly what needs to change, but practical and necessary.

 

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British Identity & the Social Union

British identity seems to be a quiet but powerful factor in terms of voting intentions in the upcoming referendum.

While those intending to vote yes to independence are often cast as following ‘heart’ over ‘head’, it seems reasonable to suggest that a ‘heart’ emotional attachment to a British identity is a big factor for many of those voting no.

Screenwriter (of Katie Morag fame) Sergio Casci noted last week on Derek Bateman’s podcast that “the people who are committed no voters, in my experience, are those who have an emotional attachment to Britain and to the idea of Britishness.”  Bateman adds that this position, whether or not you share it, is deserving of respect: “These people are rooted in something; they have a belief system . . . it’s perfectly legitimate.”

This strikes a chord with me.  In meetings, women’s discussion groups and conversations with friends and family, British identity is a recurring theme, but a tricky one.  There often is a bit of reluctance to express this identity, particularly in political meetings (I’ve seen such expressions met with hostility and/or dismissed, thus shutting down discussion – part of a problem generally discussed here).

British identity is undoubtedly a tricky and complex thing, holding quite different, and very strong, meanings for different people.  This is not intended as a comprehensive discussion of them, at all.  But there is among these meanings a strong and appealing narrative of Britishness centred on justice and fairness, associated with characteristics of quiet reserve and honest even-handedness.  Honour and decency feature heavily in this version of Britishness, but like any stereotype or national trait this has certain class and gender assumptions that can’t go unquestioned any more.  However this ‘fair’ Britishness has more concrete associations than just ‘being a decent chap.’ Though those of a more conservative bent than me might not like these things linked, the idea of fairness is also associated with the ideals and institutions of the welfare state.

The post-war era has a strong influence on British identity in particular.  Those were, to an extent, hopeful times; Britain’s ‘peak democracy’ era when wages converged, housing improved, and wars and starvation became seen as a thing of the past.

There are of course lots of caveats and contradictions in the way the post war years really panned out – like the enormous strengthening of centralised state power, or the systematic mistreatment of the marginalised in society.  However the sense of hope and belief in collective action from that era is palpable. Even today despite years of right-wing dogma, the population is generally in support of renationalisation of key sectors and strongly defends the NHS.

My reasons for voting yes are, ironically, those associated with that British welfare state ideal.  I want to defend and build upon these institutions and ideals of public good and collective action which are being decimated by red/blue look-a-like neoliberal governments.  It now seems to me that the most pragmatic and effective way to do this is through independence.  Breaking up the British state, with its corruption, anti-democratic structures and delusions of imperial might, is a good move for everyone across these isles, as recently emphasised by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood in a Glasgow lecture.  But breaking up the British state through devolution and regional sovereignty is not the same as breaking the social union we all share.   This myth of the nasty nationalists as border-building, family-splitting separatists has to be dispelled, and having spent two years in this progressive, forward-looking independence movement I am constantly surprised at how prevalent this daft stereotype still is in England.

Then there is the idea of Britain as a welcoming place of opportunity and safety, a mixed and open society.  I’ve heard this from people who came here as immigrants 50 years ago, and those that arrived much more recently.  Though for recent migrants, the horror stories of dawn raids, deportations and abuse in private prisons are depressingly common.  Nevertheless, the feeling of Britain as inclusive, multicultural and progressive is a significant part of British identity for many.  It’s interesting to note that in some areas of England, those from BME backgrounds are much more likely to identify as ‘British’, whereas white respondents are more likely to choose ‘English’.  This perhaps is linked to the ‘tainting’ of English nationhood and identity through its appropriation by the racist far right in recent years.  But ‘Britishness’ also suffers from this association and use.  All these conflicting and overlapping meanings and associations make it an extremely complicated issue, as well as being very emotive.

A Britishness which centres around inclusion and diversity can be significant for those of us with family backgrounds in two or more of the nations or regions of the British Isles (this itself is a problematic term given Ireland’s history and position; if you know a better geographical term please suggest it!).  We are all so interlinked, and ‘British’ seems much easier and for some more natural than, say, ‘Scottish-half-English-third-Welsh’ or whatever.  From this perspective, proposals for Scottish independence can no doubt seem deeply regressive and personal; the breaking up of an identity and sense of belonging out of some nationalist fervour.  This understandably would lead people to feel aggrieved and emotional on the issue of independence, as though the Scots are ‘abandoning’ the big family, and abandoning the shared welfare state too.

I myself do not hold such positive associations around Britishness or Britain as a whole, despite my mixed Scottish/English background.  Part of this might relate to an early awareness of the ‘dark side’ of British history and power – the ‘blood never dried’ history – and also coming of age at the time of the Iraq War protests.  But to those who do hold this identity, and consequently feel threatened at the prospect of Scottish independence, I would stress again that this movement for self-determination is not anti-English or isolationist, or about severing social ties and putting up walls.  The Prime Minister said recently that it would ‘break his heart’ to see Scotland become independent (seems rather counterproductive; what more could spur us on!?).  And certainly something that ended our shared social history, family bonds, friendships, would break my heart too.  But that’s not what this is about.  People will get on with things whatever happens, having loves, lives, families, culture, and experiences together regardless of accent, census identity tickbox, or borders.  What we are seeking in this movement is democracy, self-determination, not a vindictive ‘split’ from our neighbours.

I’ll leave the last word to Dick Gaughan, as he always says it best.  Let friendship and honour unite, and flourish on both sides the Tweed…

 

Women & Participation in Indyref Politics

I have written enough about how exciting and lively I find the political debate sparked by the referendum. And I’m clear in my intention to vote yes, and why (see initial post). But away from that optimism – and in fact, counter to it – I have real concerns about how we’re talking to each other, and who is getting to talk at all.

At RIC’s Inverness conference in May Jonathan Shafi spoke of the need for a ‘culture of engagement’, going far beyond the ballot box – perhaps, a mindset and social norm of active citizenship and political engagement. This is indeed sorely needed. There’s a slightly self-congratulatory narrative at the moment about the size and diversity of the yes movement, this ‘third Scotland’ of fresh and radical politics – and while I think its not entirely misplaced, there are some glaring omissions. Though meetings are events are undeniably usually packed out, there is an online bias to the yes movement’s activism, particularly in how we organise, which results in obvious exclusions. Many people don’t have internet access, and of those that do, many cannot or choose not to use social media platforms. Reminding people of this at meetings can sometimes be met with total incredulity. ‘Why on earth wouldn’t you use facebook?!’ said a tech-savvy acquaintance. Well…

There are significant class and gender exclusions, despite the excellent work of both the Radical Independence Campaign and Women for Independence. I’ll focus on the gender issues here. Recently I helped run some Women for Indy discussion group meetings up north, and the dynamics of participation (or lack of it) were really interesting.

Though most in the local Yes group were supportive, there was a fair bit of defensive huffing and raised eyebrows from some of the (male) group members at the establishment of a women’s group. We emphasised the need for a welcoming, supportive and non-intimidating space for discussing the issues surrounding the referendum, and this was sometimes taken as a criticism.

The discussion groups were really wonderful. Women who had never previously gone to a political meeting before, or had felt excluded from politics for many years came along, and spoke freely. Most of those who attended were thinking to vote yes, but No and Undecided voters also voiced their thoughts and feelings on the matter with no judgemental or unfriendly reactions – just interest, support and curious questions. There was a lot of laughter too, and all of it good-natured. And tons of cake, obviously.

From my point of view as organiser, it was this open and informal discussion that I was aiming for – not ‘converting’ the unconvinced. I am not into evangelical politics. I didn’t mind if someone left the meeting still intending to vote no – so long as they felt their voice had been heard, felt they had been able to participate in this national conversation without being shouted down, interrupted, laughed at or mocked.

Sadly, at many other meetings I’ve been to, they would have met precisely those reactions. Or at the very least, would have been told, in an uncertain and probably lengthy lecture, why exactly they should change their mind and vote yes. Anyone who thinks that lecturing, finger-pointing and repeating slogans is going to win over voters is really not doing the yes campaign any favours (and I’m sure it’s just as prevalent on the other side of the campaign).

There is unfortunately a definite gender aspect to this. Multiple studies have shown that women just stop engaging and don’t speak up once the shouty men start talking in meetings or discussions. And there’s always one, no matter how ‘radical’ the event is. A certain far left political figure known for his long and ‘emphatic’ speeches was given free reign during a Q&A session at RIC’s 2013 conference, despite him not asking any questions, just stating his own beliefs loudly and repeatedly. You could literally see almost everyone in the room slump down into their chairs, questions forgotten, contributions given up on, resigning themselves to another fifteen-minute lecture from this ‘comrade’. I have seen this so many times. Chairs of such meetings need to actively facilitate – if someone dominates the limited Q&A time, they must step in and cut them off, because it shuts down debate quicker than a stink bomb.

Exactly the same thing happened at the Inverness conference this year, with a very lengthy statement from another small socialist group. Ironically this was, I think, during the same plenary session where Lesley Riddoch pointed out, with her usual (and concise) good sense, that we need conversation and discussion – ‘show, not tell’ – instead of slogans and certainties. As Riddoch pointed out, people do not respond well to being told what they should do or think. You may think you’re right (in voting yes, in boycotting Israel, in finding religion silly, whatever) but you have to let people get there themselves! It has to be something they come to, if they do, through decent and respectful conversations. Otherwise, they just get backed into a corner – quite literally, sometimes, as finger-pointing tirades can be quite physically intimidating. People who feel backed into a corner are not going to suddenly see your point of view. They are going to put up big barricades and tell you to fuck off – quite reasonably.

At the ‘top’ level of debate on TV and radio, this grand-statement style of talking is well-established, and extremely off-putting. Riddoch writes that women are probably understandably put off by the ‘the loud words, hard knocks, claims and counter claims’ characteristic of such debates. Having women debate eachother is no magic solution either, with the infamous Sturgeon-Lamont rammy a perfect example of how NOT to engage undecided voters. Shouting about the currency or EU, stating your hard FACTS over and over again, is so counter-productive. Being extraordinarily, stupidly optimistic about an independent Scotland – or indeed, refusing to engage with the reality of this Scotland – doesn’t persuade many people either.

Though the grassroots movement is undeniably and impressively large and diverse, and good conversations are happening all over, there is still a great deal of masculine or aggressive politics at the grassroots level of the debate, which is worrying. If we want a genuinely participatory, inclusive democracy in Scotland, we need to behave that way right now.

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Women for Independence campaign for women’s voices to be heard in the referendum debate, as well as pushing for a yes vote in September.  They have local groups all over Scotland.  Follow @WomenForIndy

Scottish Labour’s Sticking Plasters

Slide from John Harris' presentation at Yestival. Succint & to the point...

Slide from John Harris’ presentation at Yestival. Succint & to the point…

MSP Neil Findlay writes in the Scottish Left Review that the debate over Scotland’s future has not excluded the Labour party. True – the Labour party has excluded itself. By allowing their hatred of the SNP[1] to completely foreclose any healthy debate, and repeating the same lines of the UK Tory & Labour leadership, Scottish Labour have helped to reduce the debate – at the party level – to tedious and repetitive bickering. They have not engaged with the wider progressive yes movement, or offered a better vision of Scotland. The ‘real answers’ that Findlay writes of have been sorely lacking.

This is glaringly obvious in the SLR piece, in which Findlay somehow manages to refer to SLAB’s manifesto of vague promises and dodgy rhetoric as a ‘real and substantive package of practical measures’. It’s hard to see how this could possibly be accurate. How any large-scale change such as big tax changes will be achieved without full powers is not explained. The other proposals Findlay lists are, overwhelmingly, the kind of ‘sticking plaster’ solutions characteristic of a party which long ago lost sight of the bigger pictures. Obviously no one would argue against fighting union blacklisting and questioning the miners’ strike convictions. But in a list of main proposals to better society – really? Expanding the living wage is admirable too – but it does not fundamentally alter the low-pay, high-unemployment economy and labour market which has developed over years of neoliberal economic and social policy. ‘Close the low-pay loophole’? It’s not a loophole, it’s a rigid, entrenched and unfair economic system.

Similarly freezing energy prices is not the solution to our appalling privatised mess of energy provision. Why not take the infrastructure and supply back into public ownership, to prevent the inevitable monopoly control that arises with such private provision? This, critics would point out, is not in the SNP’s White Paper either. And I would have to state, for the thousandth time, that the SNP are not on the ballot box in September 2014. This is about a vote for the possibilities opened up by independence, not for some rigid and eternal white-paper-version of Scotland that will never change. I, and those I campaign with in RIC, Women for Indy and so on, are campaigning not for some saltire status quo, but for far-reaching and structural change, made possible (but not certain) by political independence. But Scottish Labour’s obsession with scoring points against the SNP makes them blind to this crucial aspect of the referendum debate.

They seem blind, too, to the profoundly neoliberal nature of its leadership and ideology. Findlay harks back to the glories of the historic Labour movement, which are indeed pretty glorious. However, his insistence that “only the Labour and trade union movement” can improve living and working conditions ignores the fact that the Labour party is no longer synonymous with the labour movement, and that this break is not new. As STUC and FBU activists described at last week’s Common Weal Festival, trade unionists are giving up on influencing Labour to push for more radical change. Labour is increasingly populated, like all the mainstream parties, by professional politicians from middle- or upper- class backgrounds, who will not and cannot represent the huge numbers of disenfranchised people. The Guardian journalist John Harris mentioned this problem in his talk for Yestival in Edinburgh recently – citing the fumble by the shadow business secretary in pronouncing Worcester as ‘Wichita’. These politicians simply do not ‘belong’ to a place, and in this age of rising identity politics and the importance of place, that matters. Who do such politicians really represent, and what do they actually believe in? At the University of Edinburgh I saw a whole cabal of greasy-pole-climbers enter student politics and come out the other side straight into party politics. Some were decent folk, but a worrying number were some of the most immoral and indifferent people I’ve ever met. ‘Slick’ would be the word that immediately comes to mind. True professionalised politics: whether they chose Tory or Labour hardly seemed to matter.

In such a situation, the ‘apathy’ of working-class people is pretty rational. The Electoral Reform Society recently carried out focus-group research in poor areas of Glasgow, and found that not voting was a considered position, not mere ‘apathy’. In another Common Weal talk, Willie Sullivan explained that the overwhelming reason they got for not voting was that the politicians on offer were ‘not like us’, and that they are dishonest. With some notable exceptions, this seems a fair assessment. Turnout and disengagement is reaching crisis levels, and disillusionment with the Labour party is central to this. For Neil Findlay to think that some vague income tax promises and noise about ‘addressing’ zero-hours contracts will be enough to turn back this tide shows that he and Scottish Labour seriously fail to understand the politics of Scotland today.

Panel on Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party in the Tapestry of Scotland

Panel on Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party in the Tapestry of Scotland

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[1] To be fair, the hatred is mutual, and the SNP-Lab bickering and sniping is a serious problem in Holyrood. Henry McLeish has some interesting and very critical things to say on this subject

Borders, ‘Foreigners’ and Wild Stereotypes

Image by Phoonam Whabi Design Action Collective http://fleurmach.com/2012/10/12/aint-no-border-high-enough/

For many years I campaigned with the direct action group No Borders. We stood in opposition to the racist and often brutal system of deportation and detention in the UK and beyond, and worked to support all migrants and refugees. No Borders is exactly what it says on the tin – they believe in the freedom of movement for all, regardless of flags and national boundaries. 

It is a position I still hold. I also have come to support Scottish independence. I was never, obviously, one for flags and historical grievances, and talk of some unique ‘Scottishness’ makes me wary. But as the debate grew I began to see that independence would create the possibility (not the certainty) of achieving some of the things I believe in. The status quo does not offer these possibilities.

The yes movement has grown into something quite extraordinary – the breadth and diversity of groups is significant. On the No side, grassroots activism is rather lacking, so they have to buy it. You can imagine the surprise of the real No Borders activist when the no campaign rolled out ‘Vote No Borders’, a supposedly grassroots group making the ‘ordinary person’s’ case for the Union.

This was greeted with unconstrained glee by the BBC and others, and we were treated to endless footage of some lasses singing a rather schmaltzy ballad and enthusing about the strength of the UK. BBC coverage in particular was completely uncritical – but thankfully there’s some pretty sharp online journalism going on in the #indyref debate, and it was quickly pointed out that this ‘grassroots’ campaign was being run from London, by a Tory donor, starting out on an initial budget of £140,000 – since put to good use producing depressing video clips in which people talk about how feart they are about the risks of independence, of losing pensions and going back to a stone-age economy if King Alex gets his way. I don’t doubt the sincerity of these people. I feel for them, because I think they’ve been misled. Pensions, healthcare and stability are all at great risk in austerity-driven UK, with no indication of a change in tack any time soon. Things reached a new low when one of Vote No Borders’ cinema adverts claimed that Scottish parents seeking treatment for their sick children at Great Ormond Street Hospital would have to ‘join the long line of foreigners’. This was immediately refuted by Great Ormond Street and the advert was pulled.

Anyway. Beyond the questions of Vote No Border’s dubious grassroots credentials and gloomy message, there’s the rather glaring issue of their name. Unlike the real No Borders, they only object to one border – Scotland’s. The UK’s border, with its harsh and punitive controls, is not a problem for them.

You hear this argument a lot from unionist commentators. Scottish nationalism is their ideal bogeyman – the terrible “separatists” with their saltires and border posts, trying to split apart our harmonious Great Britain. The fact that this wild stereotype does not remotely reflect reality does not seem to bother them.

Even more frustrating, perhaps, is that while that nationalism is being decried and words like ‘balkanisation’ and ‘ethnic tension’ thrown around, the British nationalism that underlies their arguments is barely ever mentioned. But it’s always there. It’s a particularly common, but hypocritical, position found in left-wing arguments against independence. The strange claim is made that devolving power fully to the Scottish people would somehow prevent solidarity and collective action between the working people of each country. But this never seems to be followed up with a call to dissolve the UK’s borders in pursuit of greater solidarity with European workers. No, the British state & British border is fine – it’s just the Scottish one that’s such a threat. This is not logical.

Why on earth can’t solidarity cross borders? Is collective action immediately impossible if some people have their own government? Has the great ‘solidarity’ of the UK left been achieving much of late? National Collective point out that ‘It is not enough to suffer together. If a No vote is a vote for being ‘better together’ then we must know how we can be better.’ And that just isn’t on the cards.

Another recurring aspect of the argument against independence is that it abandons English voters to Tory rule forever. A fearful prospect indeed. But this ignores the fact that the relatively tiny (9%) Scottish electorate have only affected a UK General Election outcome twice in recent decades. George Eaton states unequivocally that ‘on no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament’.

In the end, it comes down to the principle of self-determination. The broad aspirations in the yes movement are for Scotland to become a progressive, inclusive, outward-looking nation. No one is proposing that we build a wall (apart from Ed Miliband, in a bizarre piece of scaremongering last month). I have heard from family members in England and in Scotland that we mustn’t become foreigners, mustn’t split the nation apart. Are the Irish foreigners? No, they are our neighbours. We share history, music and culture as well as trade, and political independence doesn’t change that. The social union remains; Scotland and the rest of the UK are very closely bound together and that will not change with us having our own government.

Geographically, whatever the vote, no one’s going anywhere! Geographically, the British Isles remains just that. But it’s little wonder that otherwise sensible people come out with this foreigner stuff when it’s repeated ad nausem by all mainstream news outlets and major political parties. If we do win this referendum, it will be despite one of the biggest and most relentless campaigns of misinformation we’ve ever seen.

Common Weal Scotland

DSC_2069A sign of the health & breadth of the pro-independence movement in Scotland is that we are no longer exclaiming over how many folk we’ve packed into a venue. It just seems normal now to have crowds of 500+. I was one of many taken completely by surprise at the scale of the Radical Independence Campaign’s first conference back in 2012. The following year they had over 1,000. Now, in 2014, as the end of the referendum campaign (but definitely not of the movement) approaches, it seems normal to be roaming around the Arches in a crowd of 700. The scale and momentum of the movement are extraordinary, and won’t be going away regardless of the referendum outcome.

Credit: Simon Baker / National Collective

Credit: Simon Baker / National Collective

And I wasn’t even roaming round the Arches for a specifically pro-yes event (though that was the tone of the day, certainly). This was the Festival of the Common Weal, a day of talks, comedy and music around their proposals for a progressive, social-democratic Scotland – whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Proponents of the Common Weal aren’t afraid to talk of vision, inspiration, and justice. Such emotive and even personal arguments are lacking in the official levels of the official Yes campaign, as they like to keep it dry and ‘rational’. But talking of hopes and dreams, doesn’t have to mean flag-waving and weeping over Bannockburn. People need inspiration, vision, something to work towards.

‘All of us first’ is the Common Weal tagline, to replace the ‘me-first’ politics which has reigned for so long. It’s not just the political system that is seen as ripe for change, but the bigger picture – education, work, infrastructure, energy, housing, consumption. What are our resources, natural and human, and how are they being used? What barriers are in place to happiness, health and justice? Academics, commentators and policy experts have contributed over 50 research papers, all available at the Reid Foundation’s website, and the whole raft of proposals has been debated at length. Recently a small 130-page book explaining the Common Weal vision was published and quickly sold out. This, too, is available online as an e-book.

It was of course labelled populist, but as Reid Foundation Director Robin McAlpine argues, this slur doesn’t work here. Universalism and socially progressive policies are popular, not populist.

Credit: Simon Baker / National Collective

Credit: Simon Baker / National Collective

There’s a lot of ‘could’ in the Common Weal book. That’s not a weakness. It’s not utopianism, but practical idealism.   A lot of this is about seeing just how strange the UK is; just how dysfunctional and ridiculous the way in which our society is run has become, compared to almost anywhere else in Europe. We have the most expensive ‘public’ transport. The longest working hours. The most complex and inefficient tax system. The most unfair, skewed and dysfunctional economy. Our ‘weirdness’ is well documented, from child poverty & infant mortality, wealth gaps and extreme privatisation levels, a desperate lack of local democracy, and extreme concentrations of land ownership.

These are things that can be changed. It is not mad to think this; only difficult, because it goes against the many decades of neoliberal dogma which has extended so far into how we see the world that any alternative can indeed seem utopian and ridiculous. At the Common Weal festival John Duffy of the FBU remarked that one of the problems in the indyref debate is that we’re so constrained by what we’re used to. Yes Scotland’s official message tends towards the safe and steady – gradual change, don’t scare the horses. But can’t we imagine something vastly better? McAlpine writes that there is a viable, alternative philosophy to this status quo:

It is perhaps best summed up by Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, who said “to build more, we must share more”. Instinctively, all of us know this to be true. Modern Britain is like a nursery school in which the teachers thought the best bet was to allow the most aggressive child to hoard all the Lego. Nothing gets built; the goal becomes to get and keep the Lego, not to use it. Share the Lego more equitably and, far from losing productivity, you see a rapid rise in productivity as youngsters build things rather than fight.

Seems appropriate to have analogies about lego given its use in the campaign so far (and the amazing movie).  Anyway, as acknowledged throughout the last two years of campaigning and planning, and repeated on Sunday, none of this radical change is guaranteed. There is no silver bullet. Willie Sullivan, in one of the day’s talks, remarked that you can ‘cut the head off the monster’ of London-concentrated power – ‘but the head can grow back in Edinburgh’. Tackling the location, operation and concentration of power in Scotland is a huge challenge, even if there is a yes vote. It’s lucky then that we’re not lacking in momentum and commitment. I do think we do stand a chance of realising these practical ideals.

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Grand as it is that there’s enthusiasm & commitment, what the Common Weal does need to continue its work is money.  If you support their vision and want to see such principles & policies taking centre stage, please donate here! DSC_2070

 

Why Yes?

If this movement was characterised by ethnic nationalism, based on past glories and battles, or had more than a whiff of tartanry, I wouldn’t be involved.  But instead this is the most dynamic, outward-looking, diverse and exciting political movementMcIntosh poem on Scotland I’ve ever been involved in.  It’s reversed my cynicism about the future of progressive politics.   Voting in the referendum is based on residency, not ‘ethnic’ roots.  If you are committed to this country, you help to shape its future.  Such an open sense of belonging is reflected in Alistair McIntosh’s poem, above (implying nothing about Alistair’s constitutional preference here, by the way. Just a nice poem).  An independent Scotland would have progressive citizenship and immgration policies.  It would not imprison and abuse asylum seekers, for instance

One of the most exciting things about this movement, this political re-engagement in Scotland, is the shift in perceptions. You see your own country anew (whether that’s the UK or Scotland) and say, Christ, what is going on here? You no longer accept that it is inevitable, but see how this state of affairs came to be, and which interests made it so. You see how it might be possible to change it. The shift in perception can be stark – what, if for instance, Scotland is not the barren north of Britain, but the fertile south of Northern Europe?

In addition to the new ideas and hopes for progress, people are increasingly questioning the shaping and content of news media – and, better, producing their own media, their own writing. It’s this shift from passive (if disgruntled) consumer to active, determined citizen that is so interesting. There’s a sense of hope, but for once it is realistic and practical. The broad left in Scotland has grown so much in the last two years, with the referendum as a catalyst, that there is a real chance for progressive, radical change in this country, and further afield. If someone had told me that 6 or 7 years ago I would have laughed. And it’s not just ‘getting a Labour government’ instead of a Tory one (though that of course wouldn’t be much of a lefty victory any more). It’s not just the prospect of moving centralised power from one southern location to a slightly more northern one. It’s the possibilities beyond that. Power must be devolved, dispersed, to meaningful levels, where people feel they have a say in what happens in their lives and communities. Politics as usual cannot, and will not, continue.

The Common Weal is the most crucial part of the yes movement because it is the reason we are trying so hard to get a yes vote. We aren’t campaigning for some saltire-ish status quo. We aren’t campaigning because we don’t like the English. I personally don’t sign up to the ‘we’re so different up here in Scotland’; in public opinion data Scotland is not significantly to the left of England (the real divide is between the South-East and everywhere else). While I believe in self-determination for any group of people – and struggle to understand how leftists can argue against it – the real point of all this, for me and I think many others, is the chance to really improve things. Not Nu-Labour sticking-plaster ‘improvements’, but a real reconsideration and restructuring of society so that people can actually prosper and live well. A Common Weal Scotland is entirely possible, though it will take time and a huge amount of effort – but the commitment and dedication is palpable in this movement. We might just get there.