I come from Paisley, a place steeped in radical history and every year members of my group, various people, mostly from the independence movement, some left republicans like myself, get together to commemorate the 1820 uprising, the sacrifice of Baird, Hardie and Wilson, those transported to Australia and the part played the people of Renfrewshire. I often wonder what these extraordinary radicals, who died fighting for social justice and an independent Scottish republic, would think of the independence movement today.
Would they be impressed with the SNP’s clutch of social democratic concessions, anti-war stance or their climate change targets? The SNP often claims, certainly here in Paisley, to embody the spirit of the Radical war, but I suspect that the revolutionaries of old would demand something more radical than devo max, the Scottish Futures Trust and lower corporation taxes. I think that they would like the idea of something like a Defiance Budget, where an authority sets a budget with no cuts, no tax rises and no job losses.
The former leader of Renfrewshire Council, Derek Mackay, an affable and capable man, now an SNP MSP, talked like a revolutionary when he and his group were in opposition. Exchanges between the SNP and Labour groups were so fierce that police were often called to the Council chambers. Cllr Mackay and friends were out on the streets with activists like me, when the local Labour group, under the direction of Labour MPs tried to privatise council housing. Yet in office they announced and have driven through the biggest programme of cuts in Renfrewshire Council’s history – £75 million worth of cuts.
Derek once described me as a fantasist after I said publicly that it was the SNP’s responsibility to defy public spending cuts, both at the Scottish Government and Local Government levels, and if they simply passed on Tory cuts, then they were cowards, who didn’t deserve to be in office. The comment, made to the local paper here in Paisley, after one of my many local protests, was designed to provoke an angry reaction and it did. But it also generated a nice little debate about the idea of defiance budgets, the limits of resistance within our Government structures and when it is right to break the law.
In these times of revolution and resistance, the idea is clearly a legitimate topic for discussion, yet outside of far left publications, forums and blogs, there has been very little national debate around the issue and almost no discussion in the context of the independence movement.
Forget the legalities for the time being and imagine for the moment, that the Scottish Government, instead of passing on a billion pounds of Tory cuts in 2010, had done something different – set a budget with no cuts, no job losses and no tax rises, demanding that any shortfall be made up from the UK Treasury. What would have happened?
The first thing that would have happened is that there would be a hysterical reaction from a whole range of individuals and institutions including unionist political parties, newspapers and the TV because unlike the UK Government, operating a deficit budget in Scotland is against the terms of Scottish Devolution. It would be an onslaught of sustained criticism, a crescendo the likes of which has never been seen. Civil servants would be instructed by the UK Government to take over public finances, creating a constitutional and political crisis.
But would it be a disaster?
This is where the veil drops and entire sinister and corrupt nature of our political system is exposed, because after the initial shock wears away from the news of such an audacious move and opinions become polarised, what would take place is in effect a showdown between the people of Scotland and the Tory Party. People would be forced to choose sides. Political parties, the civil service, trade unions, all compelled to make a choice about whether or not to accept UK cuts. In the midst of the ensuing legal, political and constitutional battles, a wave of class consciousness would wash over the people and I believe the independence movement would either be forced to take a socialist character, or be crushed for generations.
The only precedent we have for anything like this is the 1985 deficit budget set by Liverpool Council, which was successful in that it saw 5000 council houses built at the very height of Thatcherism, but ended with the leader of the rebellion on trial, demunicipalisation and a massive purge of leftists from the Labour party, a process which accelerated their shift to the right and towards the creation of New Labour.
Some people say that our elected leaders must remain within the law. If this is the case, then we should expect no social progress, because it is a simple fact that no gains have ever been made by sticking to the law. Every concession, from the welfare state to universal suffrage was fought for, the result of bitter struggle, with the cost often counted in blood.
Others say that defiance budgets are against our democratic system. But no party has the right to cut public spending. None of them campaigned with a promise to slash public services, to destroy pensions or to raise unemployment. However, what has happened is the SNP have been handed a mandate to push for independence. Wouldn’t it be great if independence meant a giant leap for society, for the planet’s survival? How is this going to happen? Are we really going to make any progress by lowering corporation taxes or by the some slightly less repulsive mutation of PFI? This will be the reality of an independent Scottish Government if we are not careful.
This kind of defiance could extend well beyond the Scottish Government and Local Authorities into things like Health Boards for example. Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board are being forced to find £57 million worth of savings, which has meant, amongst other outrages, that there will be no new nurses for next seven years. The drastic funding situation has also forced on to the agenda, the possible closure of the children’s ward at Paisley’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, a proposal that has been met with fury here in Paisley. Would it be so crazy for the Health Board to say they are not implementing the cuts and create a budget that meets their needs? If the Scottish Government or one of the eleven Councils under partial leadership of the SNP decided that they were taking a stand, then there would be nothing to stop Health Boards or other Government bodies joining in.