Opinion – Scotland's unique opportunity

11 Oct

We’re certainly living in unique times.  Everyday brings a new update or slant on life in the post-2008 world.  Just look at Europe.  The Euro zone is a mess; financial contagion has spread like wildfire and countries like Italy and Spain are already gone, never mind Greece and Ireland.  It’s a quirk of fate that on the 50th anniversary of the EU Social Contract the European project could be about to go down the tubes.

Closer to home, the austerity agenda of the Coalition Government is clearly not working either.  The UK economy has flat-lined over the last nine months, we’re in a de facto state of recession and the cuts agenda hasn’t even kicked in yet.  £75 billion worth of quantitative easing is merely delaying the inevitable.  The outlook for the ordinary punter and families across the country is of cut-backs, rising unemployment and hardship.  That’s utterly grim.

What compiles the misery is that our politicians either don’t have a clue or don’t have the will to deal with the scale of the challenge.

The Greek economist and Euro zone commentator Professor Yanis Varoufakis argues in the introduction of his book, ‘The Global Minotaur’, that since 2008 governments have been in a state of aporia.   It’s the best explanation  I’ve come across to define the lack of political response to our post-2008 world and that state of bewilderment shows no sign of lifting any time soon.

The next decade will see seismic change in economics, politics and society.  These will be changes that will shape the world for generations to come, like the Bretton-Woods plan and the neo-liberalist doctrine of the last 30 years.  Without a collective response, history shows us where the pitfalls lie.  Ugly things and horrible events can plug the gaps created by aporia.

We need to avoid that at all costs.  So we need to have a genuine open debate about the type of society we want to live in and politicians with the backbone to do something about it, free from old media subversion or the influence of a self-serving plutocracy.

In Scotland, we have that opportunity.  Irrespective of your political persuasion, an independence referendum is a once-in-a-generation chance for people in Scotland to shape our future; a chance to revitalise real political debate and demand an accountability that has eroded for way too long.

Don’t fall into the myopic view that this is purely about independence or unionism – there is more to it than that.  The people can put every political party and their politicians on the spot about their vision for the future.  On jobs, public services, legislation, energy, environment, foreign policy, arts and media – every facet of our society has to be explored and a plan presented to the country in order to let the people decide.

The politics of fear will not be good enough.  That’s certainly the lesson pro-unionist parties have to take on board from their defeats in the Scottish Parliamentary elections of 2007 and 2011.  A picture of a noose in a right-wing rag or a tax bombshell poster won’t wash with the Scottish electorate.  They’ll have to present positive proposals for the continuation of Scotland in the union, a future that is attractive to people currently feeling the first bites of an austerity agenda brought about by a mess that wasn’t of their making.

Look at Labour’s failings.  The party couldn’t articulate a coherent left-of-centre narrative and walked obligingly into political traps like the issue of council tax.  It was totally outmanoeuvred by the SNP which realised that in the Scottish Parliamentary context, what Labour believed to be its biggest strength – rigidly campaigning on the centre-ground and simply playing on the Scottish public’s hatred of the Tories – was actually its biggest weakness.  Now reduced to a campaigning caucus in Holyrood, Labour needs to get its act together fast but time is not on their side.

The challenge facing the SNP is different.  It will feel the grail is within reach but will be swaying on the best way to achieve this.  After all, it’s a broad church political party.  In May’s election the SNP was handed a free shot at cracking the traditional working class vote of Scotland and the party didn’t miss, boosted by achievements like legislating for damages on industrial disease and free prescriptions for all.  The choice for many people was obvious.

In the forthcoming referendum a more intense focus will be placed on the SNP.  It won’t be able to get away with the Westminster blame game.  People will demand to know what type of society it intends to build.  For example, what type of employment legislation will underpin its vision of Scotland and what plans does it have for the creation and sustainability of jobs, skills and growth if backed by greater financial powers?

The big question is this: will the SNP reveal itself to be any different from any other self-styled social democratic party that is wedded to a dying neo-liberal economic model?

The initial signs suggest ‘not really’.  The SNP was weak on the banks during the financial crash. Hailing a low-skill, low-wage corporation like Amazon as a ‘pin-up’ is desperate stuff.  A desire to turn Scotland into a low-corporation tax haven like Ireland will do nothing for sustainable long-term economic and employment growth.  It paid the same homage to the repulsive Murdoch media as others did before them.

And what of our other political parties? Aside from the Greens who do articulate some decent policy ideas, I’ll leave comment on the likes of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to people who care about them (but there aren’t many, I suspect).

It’s almost a given that post-referendum the Scottish Parliament will be handed greater powers than it currently enjoys.  Scotland might be independent or we may have a devolution-max system, but what are we going to do with it?

Do we really want more of the same?  Neo-liberalism has fuelled inequality and at worst, kleptocracy.  It’s a system that’s hammering ordinary people with austerity while executives in the finance industry carve up billions in bonuses between them.  The mantra that ‘we are all in it together’ will go down as one of history’s biggest cons.

Regurgitated or static politics simply isn’t good enough.  We need to debate and shape alternatives like the new socialism which Owen Jones has floated, or the late Tony Judt’s plea for the rediscovery of genuine social democracy.

In Scotland we have a unique opportunity to do just that and create something better for ourselves.  What more can you ask?


Peter Welsh works in the Unite Scotland Campaigns & Policy Unit.  While his views are drawn partly from his experience in the role over the last few years, they are personal and do not reflect Unite policy. 

This article first appeared  in A Burdz Eye View‘ Blog, 9th October 2011.  You can view the original article here.  


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