Does Scotland Really Want to be the Land of Equality it tells itself it is?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, December 28th 2013

There  is a deeply rooted belief in Scotland that we as a society and community, prioritise and value the idea of equality.

This is something found in modern politics, and also in history, tradition and myth. From Burns and ‘We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ to the Declaration of Arbroath as an expression of popular sovereignty, each year these are told and reaffirmed at Christmas and New Year. This is who we are – inclusive, less individualistic and more altruistic than elsewhere in the UK.

But we also know that the most cursory glance at a few facts will tell anyone this is most definitely not who we are in reality: whether it be educational apartheid, health inequalities, or the 1 to 273 ratio between Scotland’s wealthiest and poorest households in wealth.

We should be asking why is there this huge mismatch between actions and beliefs and does it matter? To some Labour people this is down to the dominance of the constitutional question in the last forty years. If it were not for that, Scotland would be a land free of injustice and poverty. We can dismiss this argument as deeply disingenuous – for Scotland has long before the constitutional debate, been a land disfigured by inequalities.

To some pro-independence opinion, all of this is the fault of the Labour vision of Scotland which became a self-preservation society. In other interpretations, it is all down to the supposed dependency of the union. Both of these can be dismissed as simplistic and one-dimensional, for many of Scotland’s most structural problems long predate the rise of Labour and existed at the start of the 20th century or earlier. And the union did not produce our ignoring of grotesque inequalities.

There is a much more plausible reason to explain this chasm between action and beliefs which tells us something about both these characteristics. The Scottish belief in equality has existed alongside glaring inequalities, because we have never really properly defined what we mean by equality.

The Scots tradition of egalitarianism has historically been able to accommodate great inequalities from extreme poverty to extreme affluence and wealth. This is as true today, as it was of the Scotland of the 1900s, or at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

This is because the predominant idea of equality is individualistic and meritocratic. What drives this is that individuals strive, contribute and offer something back. Wealth or success for its own sake is frowned upon, as is flaunting it too much, or being ostentatious. But wealth as a pathway to building and making things, employing people, or philanthropy, is seen positively. This after all is the appeal of Andrew Carnegie and Robert Owen.

This is not a socialist or social democratic idea of equality, but a liberal one of equality of opportunity. This in part explains why Mrs. Thatcher, in her frequent doomed trips to Scotland as Prime Minister, used to reflect that the Scots had ‘invented Thatcherism before Thatcher’ and could not understand the incomprehension she met. She had a point, but was the wrong person at the wrong time to make such an observation.

It isn’t an accident that there are no great Scots ideas of social democracy. Or contributions on equality and egalitarianism from the left or radical tradition. In the post-war era, J.P. Mackintosh, academic, thinker and Labour MP, possibly came the closest in some of his writings, but recalling this reveals the paucity of much of this tradition.

This observation is not just about Labour and SNP, but Liberals, left wingers, radicals and ‘civic Scotland’. In fact, Scotland has never been a proper social democracy, except in middle class circles and interests, because it has never been a fully-fledged democracy in the first place, a pre-requisite of being a social democracy.

What Scotland has been shaped by has been the communitarian tradition and the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre and John Macmurray (the latter in very different interpretations championed by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair). This is a Christian philosophy which stresses rights and responsibilities, and which can easily accommodate inequality and hardship in its notions of freedom and citizenship.

Scottish politics has bought into a liberal version of equality at a time of widening inequalities, and not recognised this. Instead, we have happily railed against our phantom villains: for some the catch-all culprits of the Tories, and for the most siren voices of our political community, Labour and SNP swapping insults and invective.

A Scotland that choose to champion equality would begin by offering some definition of the term. It would stop thinking it good enough to hide behind the soundbites and clichés of reciting, ‘No Cuts, No Bedroom Tax, No Trident’, and think that adequate when dealing with complex issues, trade-offs and challenges.

It would mobilise Scottish thinkers as well as international voices and experts to come up with new thinking which calls time on some of our complacent assumptions, and take on the market vandals and crony capitalist apologists who think that the only viable future we have is stripping away the social protection and provision which generations of people built up.

This requires above all political voice and muscle. It necessitates that public opinion call time on the Labour-SNP-civic Scotland charade that they are all social democrats positioning themselves to protect our progressive values and credentials.

If the independence debate of the next year is to mean anything, it has to flush out some of the myths that modern Scotland has told itself: that we are a land of egalitarianism, educational opportunity and democratic popular sovereignty.

We have to decide if these are indeed what we wish to be defined and known by, and if so champion and implement them, aligning our actions and beliefs. Do we want to be a society where what matters is how we treat the most vulnerable, and that we demand of the rich and powerful, that they contribute more back than others?

This would be a herculean task, but a possible one which would require mobilising society, making difficult decisions, and challenging elites. The first task would be to recognise that contemporary Scotland isn’t anywhere near the kind of society most of us claim we want to live in.