More radical thinking is needed for the future of Scotland not less
A New Scotland: Building an equal, fair and sustainable society, edited by Gregor Gall, Pluto Press £14.99.
This is a collection of contributions from 55 authors (19 of them women) who are mostly academics or trade union activists: it is avowedly left-wing, critical of what it continuously refers to as the ‘neo-liberal’ status quo. The collection is organised into three parts: keys issues; policy areas and political practice.
The editor, Gregor Gall, claims it is a ‘single pointer covering all the essential issues’ in terms of a progressive vision for Scotland’s future. In the foreword, the STUC’s General Secretary Rozanne Foyer warns you not to read all of the book in one sitting. Reader, heed her advice, because this is quite definitely *not* the single tome you need to read, and I *did* read it all in one sitting, so you don’t have to.
Like all collections, it is of variable quality, and here it is the editor’s work to ensure that there’s a distinctive and accessible set of chapters. This is something they have comprehensively failed to do. Some of the academic contributions would definitely not pass peer review: an overstretched claim that Scotland is the most unequal region of the UK is based on one 2007 self-citation, for example (Commons Library 2018 figures has this as Yorkshire, Humber and Wales). Some chapters are willfully obscure – despite almost everyone complaining about neo-liberalism as the source of all Scotland’s woes (news to those living in poverty in the 1960s I imagine), the chapter explaining ‘patrimonial capitalism’ left me confused – and I have actually read the source material this is based on, something I urge you to do in the original.
Some of the chapters from non-academics are even worse: one on community campaigns opens with the polemical claim that ‘institutional power no longer delivers for citizens’ (well, tell that to NHS patients) and that all states are failing states (possibly, but no citations, and I think the socio-democratic welfare states are failing women less than, say, Afghanistan at the moment, but hey, why quibble when there are grandiose claims to be made?). This chapter then goes on to claim that ‘Scotland is different’ (it’s not a nation-state for a start, and even as a sub-state other authors in this volume have pointed out its difference is largely more rhetorical than substantial).
Although James Mitchell of Edinburgh University, a colleague I have a huge amount of respect for, claims in the blurb that this offers a ‘refreshing and challenging antidote to the stale arguments currently dominating Scottish politics’ most of the contributors are not offering anything new.
Everything in this tome is predicated on paid work and the public economy: only the chapter on gender thinks of *mentioning* unpaid work (in passing) and Citizens Basic Income, one of the most potentially radical ideas to transform inequality around, gets a passing mention in the chapter on income, wealth and inequality.
There is nothing on care, unpaid work, nothing for disabled people, nothing on public services role at creating universal fairness and social cohesion. These authors are not nearly as radical as they think they are. The chapter on transport talks, puzzlingly, about land reform to reduce dependency on cars rather than offering a vision of a national public transport infrastructure that actually works for citizens (like, off the top of my head, Austria, France, Germany, Netherlands etc all seem to have managed through genuine social democracy, not what passes for it in Scottish politics).
The trouble is, and it pains me to say this about a book with such good intentions produced by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, but this volume doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it an accessible evidence-based collection for an independent Scotland? In which case most of the academic chapters fail to pass both the ‘accessible’ and ‘evidence-based’: notable exceptions are the chapters on economic democracy and public participation, and constitutional conundrums; both funded by the ESRC in an example of why competition in research actually does work to produce high quality findings and fund genuinely clever and inspirational people, a fact at odds with the anti-neo-liberalist stance of the volume. Or is it a left-wing call to arms? In which case it is too obscurist to convert anyone who doesn’t have to read it for a first-year university introduction to public policy in Scotland course.
Conversely, some of the chapters are a genuine joy to read: for example, the one on race points out the travesty of trying to reimagine migration without coming to terms with Scotland’s racist and colonial past. This is in stark contrast to the chapter on education, which unquestioningly accepts the Curriculum for Excellence as the right way to improve historical and cultural knowledge: it has been resoundingly criticised by education specialists for not doing that very well at all. The chapter on governing Scotland offers an accessible summary of radical changes that would be possible, and the chapter on the People’s Parliament enjoyably points out that the Scottish Parliament is both a ‘light in the dark’ of a democratic deficit and the preserve of an ‘elusive and elite group’. The chapters on climate justice, housing, leisure and health are well written, evidence-based, accessible and persuasive.
This could have been a useful and informative volume with some much tighter editing to remove the unsubstantiated polemical claims and make the language more accessible. The question ‘what difference would independence make’? is the elephant in the room: it hangs over the volume like it hangs over Scottish politics. Some authors offer helpful ‘shopping lists’ of what reform is needed and what could be done now, such as in the chapter on land ownership.
Independence, of course, would never transform Scotland into a non-neo-liberal state, but it would arguably give it some of the levers that it doesn’t presently have to create an ’equal, fair and sustainable society’. This volume misses a valuable opportunity to persuade a risk-averse hesitant citizenship that come October 2023, voting for independence would offer a chance for that vision.