Blink and you’ll have missed the great socialist coup. It must have been short-lived as the reality is we live in a society where an ambulance medic takes home in a year what Stephen Hester earns in just six days. Yet it’s dangerous we’re told, to rest the case for independence on the reality that with a Yes vote we will relieve ourselves of Tory rule. A closer examination shows that it’s not just the Tories we need rid of.
There’s a growing consensus for what we might call ‘Austerity Unionism’. As the Liberals, Labour and Conservatives coalesce not just in defense of the union but in defense of entrenched power, privilege and wealth. This has two defining aspects to it: one is a punitive regressive proto-Victorian attitude to working people, the second is a euphoric sense of nostalgia for yesteryear, pageantry and deference (today’s Scotsman publishes a feature entitled “New images show the Queen relaxing at Balmoral”). This hatred of the poor and simultaneous veneration of the super-rich is a symbiotic relationship. One is essential to maintain the other. Both are possible only with the help of a dark fealty pledged over an oath of ritual celebrity (see Gameboy)
It’s worth looking at three areas of ‘AU’ in action: fiscal policy, social policy and the subsequent, and presumably politically necessary celebrations of the past that come alongside these measures.
Whilst much of the economics we’re being confronted with is presented as ‘inevitable’ and ‘unwelcome but necessary’ it was nothing of the kind. They have been couched by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, and Vince Cable, the business secretary, as unavoidable, borne of necessity “and the compromises of coalition”. But, as Simon Lee has written (“Progressive’ austerity and the obvious death of Lib Dem England”): “Once upon a time in an earlier age of austerity, the ideas of two Liberals – John Maynard Keynes and Sir William Beveridge – inspired national recovery. Governments led markets, politicians dictated to bankers and public welfare was given primacy over private corporate interests. Another Great Depression was avoided. In the current age of austerity, markets lead governments, bankers dictate to politicians and private corporate interests are given primacy over public welfare. A “Great Contraction” appears imminent. These choices, including the abandonment of a signed undertaking to oppose tuition fees, were no such thing. They were deliberate but avoidable political choices, borne of the political ambition to govern.”
Is this what drives them? Is it, essentially about political pragmatism? If so, it may be a political misjudgement of huge proportion if the parties think there is no political differences north and south of the Tweed (“New poll suggests Lib Dems face Scottish mainland wipeout“). Certainly the political leaders Johann Lamont, Flipper Darling, Willie Rennie and Ruth Davidson are united in the belief that austerity measures are crucial to ‘restore the economy’. All are as one on the plan for ‘fixing’ the economy. Yet its proved the fiscal policy measures they propose favour one section of society. Bank of England report shows £325billion of the QE programme (Quantitative Easing printing £375 billion of new money to rescue the economy from the banking crisis) gave £600billion boost to the rich and nothing for bottom 50%. See here.
Now social policy seems to be an area of increasing consensus for the three parties of the union. Labour‘s Liam Byrne has outlined the need to “reinvent social security for modern times” and has signaled before that the party intends to make savings in the welfare budget if it returns to power in 2015. Pointing to the “growing resentment of benefit claimants by some sections of society”, the shadow work and pensions secretary has said he believed the fact that social security no longer enjoyed “widespread support” was linked to the fact it did not offer the same level of security as it once did. Asked whether a Labour government would introduce further welfare savings, Byrne conceded cuts were likely because of the “dog’s breakfast” Labour would inherit if it returned to power.
“The national debt is going to be over £400bn higher than it was at the last parliament,” he said. “Savings are going to have to be made and I think there will be savings that are needed on welfare spending too, and our challenge is how we spend that money differently to support people in work.” Byrne said the “zero-based review” that Ed Miliband would conduct if Labour won the 2015 general election would look at the “balance” between universal and targeted benefits. This is the policy long-heralded by the remarkable Johann Lamont.
Now the Bedroom Tax is being backed by Labour, despite utterances against it in Scotland. The UK Labour party today confirmed it would keep the Bedroom Tax for people who declined to move to smaller accommodation arguing that it was needed in order to allow social housing stock to be used “more efficiently”. This on the same day Scottish Labour MP Margaret Curran pledged the party would lead the “fight against the tax”.
This is tragic stuff from the People’s Party. We would expect this from the Tories, but as Eastleigh has panicked the governing party, the consequences is a gallop to the right and the far-right. The charge is led by, amongst others Liam Fox, though it should be noted that he first made these calls in September last year, saying when he called for capital gains tax, currently set at 28%, to be suspended and reintroduced after three years at 10%. These should be paid for by benefit cuts, said Fox, who resigned from the Ministry of Defence last year after questions were asked about his working relationship with his friend and self-styled adviser Adam Werritty.
The move we were told would “ricochet around the world” and signal that Britain was open for business, said Fox in an interview with the Times. Noting this the Fox moves post-Eastleigh have much more to do with the Conservative Parties young guns Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore, Elizabeth Truss who last year published Britannia Unchained, which should be required reading for all Better Together activists. We should not underestimate the radicalism of what we are living through, a wholesale and sustained attack on the most vulnerable in society – a massive assault on the 99% – a cleptocracy in action and a shift that would make Thatcher’s work look like cautious liberalism.
Nor should we be of any doubts of the Liberals role as a supposed check on this reckless economic and social vandalism. When Danny Alexander spoke at his party’s conference in September he got a standing ovation after backing the government’s austerity measures in his keynote speech at the Lib Dem conference. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury warned that there “could not be a worse time” for the coalition to abandon its deficit reduction strategy and reiterated the party’s commitment “to further deficit reduction into the next Parliament.” He described the current deficit programme, which involves scaling back public services with the loss of jobs and pay cuts, as the “foundation for jobs and prosperity in the future.”
How did we get to such a state and what does a country that cherishes such vast inequality look like?
After work for the Green MP Caroline Lucas, Andy Wightman has published this remarkable graph (created by Faiza Shaheen of the New Economics Foundation) which shows the average net property wealth for each 1% of the income distribution. Wightman writes: “Over the past two decades, a rapid expansion of private debt-based money, created by private banks, has led to a land bubble in the housing market. Not only has this had catastrophic consequences for countries such as Ireland and Spain but it has contributed to growing levels of inequality as illustrated in this frankly unbelievable graph.”
It shows ‘the top 1% of the population has net property wealth of £15,040,000 whilst the bottom 33% has nothing. The top 1% own more net property wealth than the rest of the 99% combined.’ That’s incredible.
Although the banking crisis – the one where we all stand astonished but apparently impotent – seems to have just become like so much more cultural wallpaper for us to gawp at. Another look should refresh our sense of moral outrage. This isn’t about a few very talented top people. Over 500 bankers earned more than £1million at RBS and Barclays in 2012, with 50 paid between £2.5 million and £5 million. HSBC paid 204 bankers more than £1 million, with its five highest paid staff receiving between £3.9 million and £7.5 million.
This is degenerate. I don’t believe that a new nation based on a different set of values wouldn’t and couldn’t do better starting by creating and shaping new institutions ‘fit for purpose’. I don’t believe that we can’t do better, and for all those waiting for an alternative within the British Union, I don’t believe any of the politicians have any intention or resolve to create and deliver a progressive, never mind a radical alternative. They have been captured and are unlikely to escape.
Why and How Would We Do An Better Under Independence?
Critics of this view – that Britain is a country distorted by institutionalized levels of inequality, would and will at this point point to the lack of alternative from the SNP, arguing that what you will get is just a small-state version of Westminster, a sort of Little Britain. No real change.
But both actual existing policies refute this as do concrete commitments to enshrine equality in a written constitution. This need not be about some futuristic constitutional spin. The reality is last week the Deputy First Minister promised to enshrine the rights of young people in a written constitution. Though denounced by Labour as gesture politics, it’s exactly the sort of thing you could imagine a semi-enlightened Dewarite Labour Party to have conceived of.
Addressing the End Child Poverty Coalition at the National Museum of Scotland, Sturgeon said the opportunity to address the current growth in the problem was one of the “big prizes” of independence. She highlighted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, saying this could be incorporated into a future written constitution to force policymakers of the future to put the rights of young people at the heart of decision-making.
Previously legislation which aims to effectively end homelessness in Scotland by the end of this year has been passed by MSPs. The change entitles anyone finding themselves homeless through no fault of their own to settled accommodation.
It meets Scotland’s historic 2012 homelessness commitment. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was Europe’s “most progressive” homelessness legislation. The change, passed unanimously under the Homelessness (Abolition of Priority Need Test) (Scotland) Order 2012, will give an estimated 3,000 more people a year the right to settled accommodation. That isn’t posturing it’s policy.
There is nothing guaranteed about a new Scotland, but on entering it we enter the realm of possibility and close the door on enshrined, constitutionally guaranteed privilege.
These promises are now held alongside the idea of holding the right to local government into written form. There’s a trajectory here and it’s intended – as it does very well – to mark out a real difference between a Britain where rights and standards seem to be constantly under assault – and a future Scotland where rights and standards and values are upheld by law.
When taken with the abolition of PFI, the abolishment of the Right to Buy in 2010 and the re-nationalisation of previously privatised hospitals, we can see a clear demarcation of direction. The provision of free personal care, prescriptions, dental check-ups and eye-tests for all in Scotland, along with the protection of tuition fees are not minor details, they are essential polices a defensible only with a Yes vote. When this is taken with the idea of a written constitution and the democratic centrifugal forces of the wider independence movement and the likely post-indy resettlement we can begin to see a landscape beyond the Austerity Union. Let’s go there.