Is Social Justice Really What Defines Modern Scotland?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 8th 2014

There are many Scotlands and there are many realities, lives and experiences which do not find favour or voice in prevailing public descriptions.

Many of our dominant versions give centrestage to politics, which isn’t all there is to life anywhere. Think of Yes and No, unionism and nationalism, left and right, Labour and SNP, Tory and anti-Tory. These are all politically restrictive labels in which some see themselves, and that define others who are different to them.

How much of Scotland do these terms capture and miss out? Which of the above can really claim to speak for all, or even most of, Scotland? Indeed, is it possible at the moment to describe and do justice to the diverse and contradictory realities of this country?

Last week I caught two versions of very different Scotlands. On one day I spoke to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on Scotland after the referendum. People at this event were animated, informed, and fully aware of divergent forces and tensions – Scottish, British, European and global – which influenced their work. They recognised that there was a distinct Scottish political environment, a version of SNP machine politics, problematic Westminster politics, and a Tory Party agenda which was going somewhere unpleasant with its mix of populism and scapegoating.

The next day I spoke at the Law Society of Scotland post-referendum conference. It was in the same city, Edinburgh, only a mile away from the previous event, but in every other aspect, tone and attitude, the events were miles apart. In my session, one questioner from the floor stated with absolute confidence that ‘an independent Scotland would face bankruptcy in 20 years’, while elsewhere two senior legal figures openly declared that ‘they had moved all their monies out of the country in case of a Yes vote’. While there were quietly spoken Yes voters in corners, the overall mood was of relief, a sense of denigration, and even more, incomprehension that things had come to this pass.

The above illustrates that significant parts of Scotland, including professional groups with influence and status, stand not just in very different places, but for many, without any kind of meaningful relationship with people who hold differing views. This is a nation with multiple parallel conversations, people speaking past each other, and numerous echo chambers.

The Only Way is Down … When You Reach the Top

This is a Scotland in transition in lots of ways. Two years ago ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, which I wrote with Eric Shaw, was published. The first talk I did on the book was at the vibrant SOLAS Festival in the middle of the countryside and when I concluded speaking, the writer and campaigner Andy Wightman intervened and commented, saying something to the effect that the demise of ‘Labour Scotland’ was a powerful thesis, and that my next book should be on the subject of ‘The Strange Death of Nationalist Scotland’.

This might have seemed counter-intuitive, as we were talking in 2012, just over one year from the SNP’s famous landslide victory, but there was a point in this then and now. At any political apex, there are the beginnings of descent, of over-reach, arrogance and hubris. This is close to an iron law of politics. Take the examples of Thatcher in 1987 after her third term victory, or Blair as early as post-1997 and his soaring 93% approval ratings. For both, the only way was downwards.

The Scotland of the post-referendum is a place of much fluidity and paradoxes. There has been a huge, almost elemental democratic explosion and impulse, which is blowing through public life like a wave or tsunami. Many of the old institutions which gave meaning and reference points to the public realm have withered, or even blown up and never recovered their importance.

Yet, at the same time, post-vote, a whole swathe of Scotland has reacted by joining the SNP, already the dominant party in the Scottish Parliament, and odds-on favourites to win again in the 2016 Scottish elections. There is a historical backdrop to this with Scottish opinion preferring sequential dominant party eras: the Liberals in the 19th century, Tories in the middle of the last century, Labour from the 1950s and 1960s on, and SNP today.

The potential transformation of the SNP into the party of the new establishment and new class will have numerous consequences. It will give the Nationalists further credibility with some, while at the same time blunting their populist credentials. And eventually in this, it will produce a reaction, critique and a gathering of anti-SNP opinion which will become influential enough to successfully challenge them. The question will be whether that challenge comes from the right in the form of a revitalised Tory Party, or from Labour, or even, from new, emergent political forces not yet identified, or in party form. And connected to this, is whether this shift has to await the resolution of the formal constitutional debate, most likely by a second referendum.

The Missing Debates of the IndyRef

The independence debate lasted over three years, yet for all the energy and engagement, it has to be said that not one detailed policy or proposal came out of all the thousands of discussions, events and activities. The Scottish economy was barely talked about in any informed or mature context. Instead, there was a non-debate of caricature and simplicity. On the one side, there was the black and white armageddon of an independent Scotland as ‘Skintland’ (as presented by ‘The Economist’), and on the other, the sunny uplands of Scotland as the 14th richest country in the world in GDP per head.

Missing was any understanding of political economy, despite this being invented in Scotland by Adam Smith, or an analysis of how modern day capitalism works and does not work for the vast majority of working people, and how government, public policy and politics can address the huge challenges of monopoly, oligopoly, cartels and other restrictions of trade which mark the economic age we live in.

One of the frequently repeated mantras of the last few years has been that our national debate was all about social justice. There was oft-made assertions that Scotland rejected the avaricious, asocial individualism which was seen to have captured the south of England, Westminster political classes, and the City of London.

Has Scotland Really Advanced Social Justice?

Despite three years of national debate, is Scotland any further forward in understanding and advancing the cause and idea of social justice? Have we really progressed in any meaningful way in recognising the brutalising, ingrained, long-term inequalities that diminish and hurt the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens? The answer to this question has to be, sadly, an emphatic no.

Take just one central issue: the direction of the country under the experience of devolution, and the sum total of the collective decisions our politicians have made since the advent of the Scottish Parliament. Since 1999 no significant redistribution has taken place towards the poor or those who are the most disadvantaged.

A social justice Scotland would not only understand this, it would want to challenge this state of affairs, and do something about it. It would want to look beyond the easy phrases and soundbites of ‘no tuition fees, free care for the elderly’ and the constant proclamation of Scotland’s social democratic credentials from politicians and their cheerleaders.

It would wish to enquire into who has gained and lost from the decisions of the devolution era? It isn’t in any way, the poor, the disadvantaged or those who in economic, social or other criterion can be seen as marginalised in society. Rather, the groups who have financially gained from political and public policy decisions post-1999 are those in the middle and above average of the income spectrum. How can the permafreeze on the council tax be seen than anything other than a regressive measure, which disproportionately aids those who are more affluent and live in more expensive houses? And why does so much of our politics and public debate pretend it is otherwise?

The reasons why Scotland lets this pass are manifold. One major reason is the SNP’s ‘big tent’ politics which has put an emphasis on retaining and not frightening away middle class voters. For all the rhetoric of the revitalisation of left-wing Scotland in the referendum, the strength of support of more affluent and elderly voters for the union makes a politics of any radical redistribution and social justice less likely, not more. Never mind such inconvenient facts for some, when you can have myth and mantra: Scotland is the land of social justice, therefore, we can just will this state of affairs into being.

Which Scotland has gained from Devolution?

There has been little detailed examination of the opportunity cost of the cumulative choices of the devolution era. For example, the prevailing narrative of our supposed social democratic values repeats as a shopping list the policy and spending choices the Parliament has made (no tuition fees etc.), but it seldom addresses the consequences of these choices. Namely, what has Scotland chosen not to do and not to champion because of its choices; the answers are telling about our priorities and include children, FE colleges, and the complete absence of any Sure Start programme.

The devolution social justice agenda has been one of insider groups who have known how to work the system: how to gain access, lobby and mobilise both expert and public opinion. It is a revealing statement on the nature of Scotland’s supposed social democratic and radical intent, that its mainstream progressive opinion – in the political parties, media and wider society – have not critiqued this state of affairs. Sadly, they have been content to go along with these devolution choices and buy the rhetoric that they are proof of how egalitarian and concerned about social justice is the community of the realm of Scotland.

The 15 years of devolution have not seen any major prioritisation of social justice, but a lot of pretence that this is who we are as a people and nation. Outsider groups, whether in terms of income, status or other definitions of being disadvantaged, have not been prioritised. They have in an abstract, vague way been invoked, but never heard, listened too, or properly respected by government, public bodies and wider debate.

This state of affairs has been assisted by the politics of devolution being one of continuity and preservation with the era of pre-devolution. The old days of the Scottish Office saw a tight, closely knit part of society know how to work the corridors and access points of power. The emergent Scottish Executive came directly from those arrangements, and saw the same civil servants, departments and values govern our country.

Nowhere in the early days of devolution was there a proper, prepared programme for government, which addressed how to do public policy, administer and govern, create leadership, and make difficult decisions which go against vested interests entrenched in the system. A cursory examination of the early Labour-Lib Dem days of devolution under Donald Dewar and then Henry McLeish illustrates that this was a political class ill-at-ease with the huge tasks and expectations they confronted.

Things have moved on with the creation of the Scottish Government in 2007, but not by as much as some assume. There is still an absence of strategic priorities, an emphasis on rhetoric rather than action, and a predilection for well written, well meaning strategy and expert papers which then sit unimplemented (early years intervention and child poverty being two examples).

The Chasm between Action and Words

There is a delivery deficit and a gap between action and words, the latter of which shapes large parts of public policy and public life. Thus, senior public figures such as the respected historian Tom Devine eulogise the Scots championing of ‘the British idea of fairness and compassion’, irrespective of facts. One in five Scottish adults and children live in poverty, while a child born last year in Greater Glasgow has a 28 year life expectancy gap between rich and poor areas, and there is a systematic exclusion in higher and further education of bright working class children which amounts to generational educational apartheid. So much more easy to buy the soft reassuring words of people such as Tom Devine than confront these truths about our nation.

Doing something about this would not be easy. It would entail dropping pretence. It would involve recognising that the answers are not to be found in the glib phrase and pursuit of ‘more powers’ for the Parliament, when lots of things are in our power now. It would undertake a more informed debate on welfare reform, rather than just oppose Westminster benefit cuts.

For too long left-wingers have given the words ‘welfare reform’ over to the right, and have for the last three to four decades, centred their politics around an opposition to cuts which then leads to an uncritical defence of the existing welfare state. These words need taken back, with the notion of universal credit, rather than IDS’s botched delivery, explored, working people’s tax credits and benefits maintained and widened, and a citizen’s income put centrestage.

Secondly, a welfarist agenda only gets so far, compartmentalising and ghettoising the idea of solidarity. Bigger societal questions have to be at the heart of any approach: how do labour markets work, and how does the housing market not work for so many people? Why are we not talking about rent controls on social housing? How does Scotland undertake a major house-building programme, which is something we did in the 1950s and 1960s, when we were a lot poorer as a society?

All of the above requires not falling for the myths of modern Scotland or the recent validation of them in the independence referendum: that we are the land of egalitarianism, social justice and a revitalised left-wing politics which is going to be able to sweep away with one transformative brush the old order and liberate and empower the people and communities up and down this land.

We have to ask ourselves why have we chosen to convince ourselves of such comforting, cosy stories of who we are and what we believe which are so inaccurate and problematic? Why has the easy rhetoric of politicians and so much of public life proven to be one of the defining accounts of modern Scotland? And why have even the most radical and left-wing opinions gone along with what can be seen as amounting to a charade?

Scotland has liked to invoke and grandstand the values and ideals of social justice without so far, particularly under devolution, doing very much about it. Rather, politics has chosen to define itself by being about who and what we are not: anti-Tory, anti-Thatcherite, anti-privatisation and anti-marketisation, and then mistaking and misrepresenting this as a politics of social democracy and progressivism.

This has been a mindset of going with the grain of insider groups, the middle classes and professional interests, but it is possible that other routes are feasible. For all the mythology and problems identified, the language and constant talk of social justice does tell us something about how Scots see themselves and want to be seen.

If we want as a society, community and people to make lifting up our poorest, most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and scrutinising and challenging those who sit with huge concentrations of income, wealth and resources our main priority, then we need to have a cathartic, far-reaching national debate. This has to address how we presently fall short and are not the land of ‘fairness and compassion’ which some think we currently are. We have to display an interest and curiosity in exploring what the actual state of Scotland is, what social justice and change would entail, and understand how power, status and voice in society and system works and needs to be challenged. None of this, and in particular, the latter, is going to be easy.

One key question remains beyond the constitutional debate: do the Scots really want change, and if so, who will dare to become the changemakers who will have the confidence to be bold and radical, and ask us the difficult questions which so far we have shied away from asking?

Post-referendum, there is an opening, energy and appetite for beginning such an initiative which could find a rich and deep response in a public who have shown their eagerness for political engagement. Do any of our existing politicians or parties have the courage to question ‘the settled will’ of Scottish elites, or does it have to come from outwith existing, mainstream opinions? The answer to this could potentially define the shape of Scotland for years to come.