Can Scottish politicians understand that social justice is about everyone?


By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, May 25th 2013

There was a revealing exchange on Newsnight Scotland this week which got to the heart of the matter of the substance (or lack of) in much of the independence debate.

Asked to elucidate on what social justice measures an independent Scotland could advance SNP MSP Kenny Gibson first stuttered and then at second attempt offered as a contribution, the abolition of the bedroom tax. Then it was Labour MSP Ken Macintosh’s chance to show his mettle on social justice and what his party would do and he equally offered no real specifics just generalisations.

Social justice is what part of Scotland prides itself on. How many Labour and SNP politicians and media commentators have you heard over the years congratulate themselves on our supposedly different, superior, egalitarian values?

Yet the best Kenny Gibson could offer on social justice was literally the defence of the status quo pre-April 2013. Ken Macintosh was no better. With twenty plus years in the Scottish Parliament and public life between them this reveals the threadbare nature of much of our debate.

Social justice is a kind of New Labour term; before people used to talk about equality. Now in the retreat from centre-left possibilities the mantra of politicians – and particularly Westminster coalition ones – is to use that unthreatening word, fairness.

For all Scotland’s guid conceit of itself no meaningful definition of social justice is ever fully developed – philosophically, politically or in everyday language. Labour and the SNP have not felt the need to define it. Labour has acted as if it owned the term (like the NHS); the SNP has long thought its rejection of London rule enough to prove its progressive credentials.

Social justice isn’t just about poverty and poor people. It is about all society, inequality, the rights and responsibilities of the super-rich ‘over-class’ (the opposite of the ‘underclass’) and very affluent. It is connected to the plight of the ‘struggling middle’, to social mobility, opportunities and inter-generational support from early years to the elderly.

Sadly Scotland isn’t the social justice paradise some of our ‘official story’ suggests. We are only marginally more unequal than England – the entire difference between the two nations accounted for the scale of inequality in London.

The poorest Scottish 1% of households have an annual income which is 1.4% of the richest 1% of households. If we represented the poorest 1% of our society as standing five feet tall, the richest 1% would stand 357 feet tall.

Scotland’s wealthiest post-crash, are like the rest of the UK, back on top enjoying the fruits of property and share bubbles and speculation, free in the knowledge that none of the mainstream political debate here or in the UK sees them as part of the problem.

In the week that Apple and Google revealed their colours, with Google chief Eric Schmidt declaring his company ‘a capitalist country’, there needs to be an understanding of the pressures and trade-offs of appeasing corporate capitalism. Part of Scotland and the independence proposition has convinced itself that cutting corporation tax is somehow progressive when it isn’t.

Anyone who thinks this should have a look at Ireland, its politics and society, which are a more bleak and reactionary version of Britain. Companies such as Apple were, the US Senate claims, able to negotiate a preferential rate of corporation tax of just 2% in the Republic. Let’s not dilute the word ‘progressive’ of any residual meaning; this is craven, pro-big business, ‘race to the bottom’ thinking.

Scotland has a choice in this. We can develop a social justice debate and agenda. It would include progressive taxation, taxing the rich, unearned income and non-doms. It would act on the abuses and creative accountancy of big multinationals, tax havens and offshore arrangements which the UK state and government is one of the leading advocates for. And it would challenge privilege and elites to aid a more open, dynamic society and economy, taking away for example the charitable status of public schools.

We would act on high pay in the public sector making it enforceable for any business or institution that has a contract with government. We would act on land ownership and challenge the wealthiest owners rather than just set up a toothless land reform review group. Similarly on early years, we would take pride in acting rather than just setting up an expert group, and commit ourselves to a Scots version of Sure Start Centres across the country, recommitting ourselves to the abolition of child poverty.

The Scottish Government could even champion some of its own policies such as the Solidarity Rule, with its commitment to raising the incomes of the lowest paid groups. To this and more we need to start having a dynamic, challenging debate about the scale of our super-rich, the abuses of corporates, and the desolation of much of our poverty, subjects which seem far removed from the yah-boo nature of much of the independence debate.

Wouldn’t it be good to be proud of the Scotland represented by our independence debate? Wouldn’t it be even more uplifting if we could take pride in the Scotland we sensed we were creating, willing and living in? If we think it worth it, then that requires action and deeds; not inaction, complacency and sticking to the status quo.

One problem in this debate is that for decades Scottish politics and our collective mindset have been shaped by the pork barrel nature of our relationship with Westminster which has actively set out to encourage a psychological dependency culture. This has resulted in a political environment and debate that is about a restricted range of opportunities and choices, lacking imagination and radicalism, and which, even in the independence argument, is about a very narrow version of politics, focused on economic levers, growth and modeling.

This non-debate is missing most Scots. In effect we have at the moment two versions of home rule facing each other; the lack of difference between the competing Scotlands on offer only disguised by some of the partisan, over the top rhetoric.

We need a different debate. One about substance, ideas and emotions – but with an emotional intelligence. One which addresses a Scotland of Amazon and Google, and their rights and responsibilities, and judges all of us by how both the most powerful and the weakest and most disadvantaged in our society are treated. There’s a forlorn hope and measure for the coming 15 months.

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –