The Real Choice: Common Weal vs Big Society
As we get closer to next year’s vote all activists in the independence campaign are faced with the task of making the results of that choice as clear as possible.
Thankfully we now have two sharply contrasting policy slogans that outline with an unusual clarity the political options that a yes or a no vote are likely to present.
Of course, it’s hard to tell whether Cameron’s “Big Society” will be remembered as anything other than a post-Blairite soundbite. Already it has become synonymous with its own caricature (for most of us it conjures up a Pimms soaked village fete in Buckinghamshire).
Personally I favour a massive society, although at times I seem content with a tiny one. It all depends on the context.
For all that such sordid little legacies of New Labour have poisoned the stream of ideas relating to the public good at a UK level, we are least insulated from them in Scotland.
For while the Blairite machine was powering full steam ahead in London, different things were being said and done in Edinburgh. Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Green and Scottish Socialist politicians were too absorbed in devolution to maintain anything other than a casual association with the old political centre.
The logical conclusion of this direction of travel, in policy terms, is the Common Weal. It is Scotland’s resonant, unified and potent response to the relentless focus group mush emanating from Westminster. It is the edification of a something for something society.
We forget at our peril that the British political class remains firmly wedded to an atlanticist ideal of a society made up of ever-smaller government, with public good steadily relegated to the (tax deductible) realm of private generosity.
The fact that this model doesn’t work was laid bare when Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s ground-breaking study The Spirit Level proved conclusively the fairly obvious notion that more equal societies are better for everyone in them.
Yet we will not get more equality from a London government, whoever is in government. As One Nation Labour become shorn of any ability to provide an alternative model of policy and governance, the importance of the Common Weal becomes ever clearer. As the party begins its long overdue divorce from the trade union movement and figures such as Ken Macintosh are rooted out from positions for opposing his leader’s notorious suggestion about Scotland as the “only something for nothing society in the world”, it becomes ever more defined by a politics alien to Scotland.
That’s why we need to realise that the Yes Campaign, with its invocation of the public good and the idea of equality, is the only carrier of the hopes of all in our society to escape austerity and the scapegoating of the vulnerable.
Like those individuals, condemned by our rulers for the sin of poverty, Scotland, with its very apparent and well documented social ills, becomes a geographical incarnation of the scrounger. Salmond’s weight becomes a classist allegory for his real appetite: vast helpings of populist public spending. The existence of such widely held views are one of the key reasons why the implications of a Yes vote are so massive.
There was a time when British governments saw society’s problems as a set of assailable ills: namely Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. They took on these issues while the country was emerging from the devastation of the most destructive conflict yet visited upon its people. Such politics are now the stuff of film and a fading memory amongst the old.
What we do know is that a British government of any hue will not take that approach again. At least not until an equal catastrophe is visited.
Whatever its flaws, the Yes Campaign is now the only credible movement in Britain offering a new politics that can infuse these isles with that crusading zeal once again. In this sense the spirit of 2014 will echo the spirit of 1945.
We await the forces of reaction to tell us that such a mission, indeed the very possibility of any justice emerging from collective will, is impossible. It may even result in that most unthinkable of outcomes and raise levels of taxation.
Yet in the mission to redress poverty in Scotland, there must be nothing off limits. This nation rich in so much cannot continue to allow her children to be born with some of the worst life expectancies on the planet. This rich nation must aspire to something greater, more impactful and worthwhile than the gaudy spectacle of neo-liberal improvement.
Luxury flats along the Forth and the Clyde will not suffice, nor will the woefully imbalanced privileging of the financial sector over all others. The chance to build something genuinely new (and not to just dress up the old in its clothing) does not come along often.
Common Weal, Big Society. Both are, at the end of the day, buzzwords incanted for political ends. Both are liable to be misused. But we do have to remember that they come from different worlds. The former looks for ideas directly from the people and is intent on shaping actual policy around these. The latter is a tagline for a small elitist group of men who were born into power.
Or to appropriate their language, it is an easy choice for them to shape such ideas and aspirations out of nothing. Society is a different and far less significant concept to an old Etonian than it is to you or me. To them society is a concept called into being at a City fundraiser. To the rest of us it is our lifeblood. It is the teacher, the colleague, the doctor, the friend, the carer and the neighbour.
The moral void represented by the Big Society is implicit to the union and its recent history. It is the soundtrack to the closing of Thatcher’s coffin and the embedding of her legacy. It says “The Tories are now okay because they support the formation of voluntary groups alongside rigorous top-down class warfare”. Socially, Britain is relegated to the Victorian era, but on the up side, the rich will do the odd shift at a foodbank…
To forge an alternative we have to look beyond the lionising of privilege to a wider objective. If we don’t, the something for nothing axis, already being played out in geographical terms, will win.
That’s why independence is now the only option for change in Scotland and a necessity to maintain the social fabric that we do have.
In 1968 the German poet Erich Fried wrote the following lines. I think that they ring true for the independence debate and remind us that we must not confuse those who are nervous about change with those who are opposed to it:
freed of everything
That upsets you
who then would be
He and no other is
your real enemy.
If Scotland votes no, those forces that are opposed to independence on any terms will have no reason to restrain their enmity. Their expression of this will be to tear down the social gains that Scotland has made under devolution; this will become politically inevitable if the union continues.
Let’s not forget that for many of these politicians, devolved matters are inherently marginal – the main political trajectory for the British political parties when it comes to health, education, law and order, is privatisation. From that political perspective the Scottish Parliament already has too much power.
Of course, if we vote Yes that Daily Mail whipped, UKIP spooked British establishment will see their right wing, austerity based narrative come to a juddering halt.
It’s time to take the debate to the stage where it can only be framed as a choice between two paths – equality vs privilege, public vs private, Common Weal vs Big Society, Yes vs No.