Does Scotland really want to do something about inequality?


By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, December 22nd 2012

Scotland thinks and acts left.

The complexity of evidence on values and policies shows that Scotland isn’t that much different from the rest of the UK. But the dominant account of Scotland is centre-left, or even left, in how it sees and positions itself, and how it votes.

Such a political culture not surprisingly spends a large amount of time articulating its concerns on social justice. We see ourselves as more egalitarian and less hierarchical than our Southern neighbours and maybe even more Nordic and Scandinavian, certainly more social democratic.

The dynamic of devolution has given institutional and political force to this account – eight years of Lab/Lib Dem administration followed by five years of SNP Government, the continued decline of the Tories, and marginalisation of right-wing views.

Is Scotland then on the road to becoming a more equal society? To gauge this we have to know where we have come from.

The Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth reported in 1976 and found that Scotland was markedly more unequal than England, based on 1973 figures. The richest one percent of England owned 28% of wealth, whereas in Scotland it was 32%; the richest five percent owned half the wealth in England and nearly two-thirds in Scotland.

Since then Scotland has made progress of sorts and caught up with England. Both countries have become significantly more unequal since the 1970s, with England becoming more unequal than Scotland. This is due to the distortive effect of England having London, the most unequal city in the developed world, within its boundaries. Take London out, and Scotland and England are broadly the same.

Where can we find the solutions to such deep-rooted problems? For some the crisis is all about the nature of Britain, the decline of the British state and the breakdown of the Westminster form of government and its political class: Thatcher, the poll tax, Blair, Iraq and the onward right-wing march of British politics.

An apposite summary of this mindset and how many Scottish nationalists with a small ‘n’ see things was provided in the following quote, ‘In place of sleek lawyers, professional politicians, rich businessmen and their placemen running our lives from London, what do the SNP propose? Sleek lawyers, professional politicians, rich businessmen and their placemen will run our lives from Edinburgh’.

This quote is not from 2012 or even post-1999; it is from a small left-wing pamphlet entitled, ‘We Shall Be All’ produced before even Thatcher came to power, in 1978.

Some things change: the economy and employment, council housing, the advent of the Scottish Parliament, and yet other things remain the same.

The pamphlet in question, from a different age, summarises this outlook in the following ironic terms, ‘Coca Cola is bloody awful for your teeth when its bottled in London. But once the bottling plant is located at the foot of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill (the proposed site of the Assembly), Coca Cola is positively health giving’.

We do like to think we have moved on and matured from the 1970s: the decade of Jimmy Savile, the Bay City Rollers, Ally MacLeod and ‘the winter of discontent’.

In many respects Scotland has matured, although the heated rhetoric of the past couple of months from several pro-union and pro-independence voices has left a lot to be desired, and bewildered many in the ‘middling Scotland’ in-between.

Scotland’s problem with inequality, wealth and power are a product of a host of things: the way global trends have evolved, the dynamics of the UK and Scottish economies, the inhibitions of politicians, and the paucity of ideas in the professional classes. The first two matter the most, but that doesn’t excuse the responsibility of the latter two.

Two very different assumptions dominate public debate. One is that too many who are nationalists and on the left feel that most of our problems are external – a product of powerful forces such as the union and global capitalism. This account avoids that some elements of our society are under Scots control and responsibility: from the car crash of Creative Scotland, to the way the whole establishment appeased Donald Trump over his Menie golf course.

Second, the professional classes believe in themselves and their mission as an enlightened Fabian class, without any real sense of self-reflection. This group are ‘the new class’ of Scottish society – in law, medicine, public health, business – and still have faith in the power of good authority and experts.

They have also gained significant influence and access from devolution and not surprisingly, have become the leading mainstream advocates of the Parliament, as the embodiment of ‘the new politics’ and the power of consultation, transparency and insider status.

Scotland has not become a more equal or fair society in the last 30-40 years. The first advance is to challenge the complacency that we are quietly progressing towards a fairer future. Second, we have to stop seeing all our problems as external or reducible to the problems of London Government; instead we have to demand and nurture a different ethics and sense of responsibility from public bodies and wider civic life.

To do this requires that Scotland gets honest about the scale of inequality and poverty in our society, its complex causes, and the collusions and evasions which stop us affecting far-reaching change.

Tackling such problems will not come from the narrow name blame game of Labour v. SNP, unionists v. nationalists, or even left v. right, because the issues are multi-dimensional, deeply rooted in our society, inter-generational, involving individual, collective, socio-economic and cultural factors.

To genuinely do something about it requires that we mobilise all our public institutions to declare war on poverty and inequality, and pledge that a future Scotland in say ten or twenty years, would have eradicated poverty in all its forms. That does not sound possible in today’s Scotland, but a nation that did that would be a very different place: committed, serious about change, and for all our differences, united in the goal of transforming and liberating the lives of hundreds of thousands of Scots.

This Christmas period, ask yourself what is stopping us from at least trying to imagine and bring about that very different Scotland?

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –