Compassion and Constitution
So after taking a couple months away from social media I decided to peek back into Twitter after hearing about the FM’s announcement that there will be another independence referendum (due of course to Theresa May’s abject failure to compromise with the Scottish Government and respond to the Scottish people’s vote on Brexit with anything more than Tory arrogance and all the intransigence and condescension that comes with that). It was great to see all the positivity from yessers, and not so great to see the media hysteria; but while the media reaction was not in the least bit surprising, I’m reassured that most ordinary people are repelled by hyperbole and obvious nonsense. Our battle will be on getting the facts and arguments around our economy and the EU out there, since these are already being incorrectly reported not just by the press but by broadcast outlets too, although I hasten to add that the economic benefits and those of remaining within the EU are not the sum of our argument.
I haven’t just taken a step back from social media, and I will disappear into the ether again soon and for some time (and for all those folks feeling politically exhausted, it really is a choice, in that we don’t have to be switched on all the time, and this really is a perfect time to step back for a bit and refresh if you need it), but I felt the need to engage here for one reason, and that is to say that I think it is absolutely imperative that we understand that voting No can in no way be a vote to help the poor – and we should say so.
Understanding No voters – if we look at the reasons they voted No in polling and studies post indyref – means understanding how much economic fear played into that vote. There has only ever been a minority of self-identified No voters who say they voted No due to their connection to the union and/or to feeling British. The majority have always said it was the uncertainty/risk around the economy of an independent Scotland that led to that decision. Most ordinary voters don’t have ‘a case’ for voting the way they do, they are just trying to make their way through a ton of conflicting information to try to get to an understanding of what is likely the best way forward for them, their loved ones, and indeed Scotland. Of course there are all sorts of preconceptions and misconceptions that can play into that process, but ultimately this is what ordinary voters on both sides tried/will try to do. ‘The case’ for Yes and for No shouldn’t be confused with the voters for Yes and No, in the sense that arguing that the case for ‘the other side’ is flawed in some way isn’t an indictment on those who voted/will vote that way. But we should also acknowledge the obvious, which is that while there is more than one way of understanding an issue like independence, that is not the same as to say that all ways of understanding the issue are equally valid and merited.
I mention this because there have been calls to divorce the moral from this debate, as a kind of nod to the fact that you can be a moral person on either side of the question, but this is a call for an empty and meaningless debate in my view, and seems to be saying that our moral goals for society, and the means by which we want to achieve them, should be exempt from scrutiny and/or are extraneous to serious political questions and considerations. Which is not just bollocks but dangerously so.
When I say that voting No can in no way be a vote to help the poor, this doesn’t equate to saying that No voters in the next referendum don’t care about the poor or aren’t moral people, or even that there can’t be anyone behind the political No case who truly believes that the union has the most to offer the poor (people can believe anything). It is simply a statement signifying a cast iron argument on the prospects for the poor in the UK. And that argument is basically that we know we will have a Tory-led UK for years to come, under a Brexit that the solid consensus among academic economists tells us will be hugely damaging to the British economy, all managed via a Tory ethos that means continued and sustained assault on the poor and the vulnerable for the foreseeable future. There are few things in life more certain than this.
And the suffering all that will lead to isn’t extraneous to considerations around the big questions. The lost lives of those who commit suicide shouldn’t be ignored, as though their misery was unbound to the choices a polity made. People who are already suffering terribly will continue to be pushed further into crisis on all levels by the most right wing government we have seen in living memory. Some of them will end up taking their own lives. There are of course many more who aren’t in such a level of crisis but who are still struggling and whose already difficult lives will only be made harder. And there are many more moral considerations on the question of independence – not least the consideration of how can we be a country able to welcome refugees; how can we remain a home to all those immigrants who chose to make their life here – many of whom are already being deported from Scotland by the UK government despite the protestations of the Scottish government and indeed their local communities. And all this is before we even consider the implications of losing the rights we have as a result of being part of the EU, including our human rights.
Indeed most of the moral considerations around independence, like these, directly correlate to the suffering of human beings. Is there any greater consideration than this when it comes to political choices? Surely at the heart of not only the debate around independence but the need for the vote, is the drive to alleviate the suffering of those in our society paying for the mistakes, lies and excesses of mostly rich white men? Indeed this is a feminist issue too – women have borne the brunt of the majority of austerity cuts, and as a result the equality gap has increased. Analysis by independent thinktank the Women’s Budget Group, released in November 2016, shows that tax and benefit changes since 2010 will have hit women’s incomes twice as hard as men by 2020. Women will be £1,003 a year worse off by 2020 on average; for men, this figure is £555. But crucially the poorest women are the worst affected: those with below-average incomes will be £1,678 worse off (!).
If you have compassion for the poor and the vulnerable; if you want Scotland to be a home to those fleeing war, famine and persecution; if you want an end to those who made their home here being forced to leave; if you want to protect what are fragile but also vital social attitudes in today’s world (fragile because we’ve mainly only managed not to tag onto the xenophobia train due to earning this politically, and thus we cannot be complacent); if you support women and our right to equality, if you value the legal protections we currently benefit from but stand to lose, then how can the considerations and arguments in relation to all this not factor into debate around our constitutional future? (And these are just some of a plethora of moral considerations that it would take more than one article to cover).
If we want a debate about what matters, that debate has to have moral considerations and goals at its heart, and the economic arguments are really about achieving a robust economy to facilitate those goals (in addition to the overall purpose of a strong economy). So the economy isn’t the only important consideration as some seem to be implying; indeed it isn’t even the only factor in being able to deliver a better, fairer society. For example with regards to immigration, that is a simple policy choice; a progressive, compassionate, humane immigration policy is one which is implementable as soon as we are independent. Human rights is such a policy choice. Laws to ensure equality are such a policy choice. Laws to protect employees are such a policy choice. I could go on. The crucial point here is that there are precious aspects of our society that depend not on our economy but on progressive government and legislation. To focus only on the economy is the same as saying these issues just don’t matter very much (or even worse, that the people they impact adversely don’t matter so much). I can’t think of many things that matter more.
Thus I would argue that when we know the misery and detrimental impact of staying in the UK for the poor and indeed for many other groups, in all the ways described above, the case for an independent Scotland need only have the potential of offering better for people, and the likelihood of not offering worse, to be the best option.
So on that point, going back to the economy, the potential of remaining within the single market while the rest of the UK leaves is enormous for Scotland. We even have academic economists, dismissive of the economic argument for independence last time, now describing indy as the better economic option, and others going further and asserting indy is ‘the rational choice’. We will soon have the Growth Commission set up by the Scottish government, publishing their report with details on how an independent Scotland can grow its economy. And the think tank Common Weal has also released a breakdown of the kinds of options an independent Scotland would have on dealing with the deficit progressively, and in doing so they not only provide clarity on our ability to do just that, but they also hammer home how taking different (more progressive) choices is what an independent Scotland is all about.
In fact I would say that voting for independence is a statement of trust in progressive politics. We are a wealthy country and no-one disputes this, and if we really do believe that progressive policies are a better management of our resources for the benefit of our people than right wing policies are, then what is there to seriously doubt? It’s not like we are going to vote for indy and then vote in a Tory government. And contrary to what the right-wing press constantly bleat, Scotland isn’t benefitting from the money of English taxpayers, we are in fact – like all parts of the UK – in deficit and having that plugged by borrowing. An independent Scotland can borrow too (!), so again, wouldn’t we rather be a progressive country borrowing less and enacting a plan to reduce the deficit, than part of a regressive UK borrowing for us, running the UK economy such that its constituent parts outside of England have unusually and unnecessarily high (notional) national/provincial deficits, due to the UK being a uniquely and completely dysfunctional state? And all with a government that has no plan at all when it comes to cutting Scotland’s deficit let alone enacting one. And that’s all before we even consider the economic onslaught that is Brexit hurtling towards us undoubtedly widening the deficit still.
So not only is there great economic potential with independence in the EU, recognised by economists, and with all sorts of options around dealing with the deficit that don’t at all reflect Tory austerity; but this is juxtaposed against an economic situation that is definitely going to get worse if we remain in the UK, and one which the UK government has no plan at all to improve. And on that point, unionists will find that the Scottish deficit is not their beating stick in this debate, but rather it is a damning indictment on the UK government, not just in terms of their economic mismanagement of the UK, but also due to the fact that they have no tailored package of proposals to reduce Scotland’s deficit – to do so hasn’t even occurred to them. The Tories basically approach the Scottish economy with the Boris ethos that a pound spent in Croyden is better than a pound spent in Strathclyde. We simply cannot afford for this kind of failure and complete abdication of responsibility to continue.
So when we look at the impact of Brexit on the UK as a whole – and on Scotland’s deficit – and who the Tories will make pay for the cuts they make – and indeed the rights UK citizens/prospective UK citizens will lose – and the impact on women’s equality; it is an entirely negative picture. Whereas we know we will be a more progressive country if we vote for independence, and this point couldn’t be more important or meaningful. We will finally be able to have the centre-left social democracy we always vote for, and will thus be a country where there will be no need and no desire to take more from those struggling and an active desire (and public pressure) to do better for them; a country where our rights will be protected, where equality is paramount, where we will welcome those who wish to make their home here, and where we are best placed to protect our society from right wing populism. As such, a vote for independence isn’t just the less risky economic vote, but it is also a vote for a society that isn’t just likely to be better for most people, but one that definitely will be on many counts right from the very beginning. And even those out there who disagree that independence is the better economic option, can’t seriously dispute that it won’t mean a better society in the ways described.
But whatever individuals may think of the prospects of an independent Scotland, we can be sure what staying in the UK means for the poor, the vulnerable, immigrants, women, our rights and protections, our ability to forge a caring society and indeed our economy; and we can be certain that we will all increasingly be encouraged by five billionaires to blame each other.
The moral case for independence is thus the human case and gives meaning to our whole argument for independence. The moral case is valuing how this choice affects people first and foremost – especially the people who need change the most and who will be worst affected if we remain part of the UK. And it’s saying not only that our welfare, rights, equality and being an open society matters, but that these matter so much that these considerations are central to our political priorities, goals, and arguments.
We can be moral people and lose the moral argument, and we can be moral people and win the moral argument. The argument – the merits and validity of what we put forward – is what is important. There is a reality here that our arguments can be measured against, so let’s not shy away from making the moral/human argument, and certainly not due to ideas that equate to thinking there can’t be moral arguments. The only way people matter in all of this is by considering the full impact on our lives of which way we go, and the stakes have never been higher. It’s simply never been more important to make the moral case for independence.