Lessons from France for an Independent Scotland

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By Mark McNaught

In order to secure a ‘yes’ vote, millions of Scots need to have a vision of what an independent Scotland will mean. Living within the archaic UK Westminster system is all Scots have ever known, so it is understandable that the prospect of independence can cause concern about the future.

The first several years following a ‘yes’ vote will be consumed by process, including dividing up the property between Scotland and the rUK, making provisions for defence and currency, etc. Scots should see these uncertain negotiations as means to a greater end, oriented towards constructing a better Scotland to be passed down to future generations.

Having lived and worked in France for the last 17 years, I have observed that French society and the French state have many admirable qualities, ones which could flourish in an independent Scotland.

The first would be for an independent Scotland to construct a strong, fair, and predictable social welfare system to promote a stable society. In France, social benefits are considered ‘droits acquis’, social rights that cannot be taken away. Excellent heath care, fair unemployment insurance, housing benefits, maternity and paternity leave, and other benefits accord an invaluable financial stability to individuals’ lives.

Of course, France receives relentless criticism from neoliberals who decry France’s high taxes, lack of competiveness, bloated bureaucracy, etc. These ‘something for nothing’ benefits, or ‘free gifts’, are held to increase laziness among the population, and are a waste of hard-working taxpayers’ money. Scots have heard this line of argument, even from their own Labour Party. In France, not even the National Front proposes serious alteration of the droits acquis. They are that sacrosanct.

An independent Scotland could develop and be proud of a decent, stable social welfare system that would allow people to plan for their future with peace of mind. Observing from abroad, I can only imagine how harrowing it must be, especially for those on benefits, to see education and benefit programs constantly tinkered with and cut by Westminster, by politicians stigmatising and stirring resentment against the poor. An independent Scotland, like France, could become a much more egalitarian society, and the poor could be given a dignified existence with the tools for upward mobility.

Yes, welfare programs require taxes. However, if the programs are well constructed, they can deliver a high return on investment. In France, people may not relish paying taxes, but  citizens can see in their daily lives what the money is used for. Railroads are excellent, highways are well maintained, parks are well kept, and health care is excellent with equal access for all. When I look at my monthly pay statement and see that about 1/3 goes towards social benefits that I am benefitting or could benefit from, I feel it is money well spent.

There is the well-worn argument against France that these employment charges and regulations stifle job creation, and make France a less dynamic economy. This may true to some extent, but not every country must be the next Japan, South Korea, or China. Most French do not particularly want to enter a global employment rat race, and that is their prerogative. The rat race is for rats. The French justifiably wish to protect their secure, healthy, and prosperous lifestyle. Why would they want to adopt neoliberal policies that lower wages and benefits, decrease the overall standard of living, abrogate union rights, and wipe out entire industries, just so a few capitalists can make off like bandits? 

Scotland could craft a fair and predictable tax code that would attract fair-minded businesses to Scotland, while still maintaining a decent and stable welfare system. A flat or mildly progressive tax could be placed on all transactions, with temporary exemptions granted in exigent circumstances for legally justified reasons. No permanent loopholes would be allowed that would favour one group over another. The entire Scottish budget could be published online, enabling all to see exactly where their taxes are going. A financial system could be developed that would pay off Scotland’s share of the UK national debt, and a large sovereign wealth fund could be created through oil revenue to guarantee Scotland’s financial surplus well into the future.

France’s secular educational system as a means to promote social cohesion and avoid sectarianism is also a policy worth emulating in an independent Scotland. France instituted this in part with the Law of 1905, which codified a strong separation of church and state, including in education. There are many private Catholic schools in France, but they must follow exactly the same state-determined curriculum as public schools, and any additional religious instruction is strictly voluntary. All students must pass the same Baccalaureat exam to gain their secondary school degree.

This policy has not infringed on the liberty of the French to worship as they choose. In the Marais in Paris, Orthodox Jews pray and go to temple. There are Protestant churches and mosques all over France. Given the brutal history of religious conflict in France, separation of church and state serves to shield citizens from religious dominance, so all religions can practice freely. After the French revolution, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Laïcité became the founding values of the state, rather than any one religious doctrine.

An independent Scotland could constitutionally mandate a strong separation of church and state, so that people of all ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds could truly feel part of Scottish identity. A national educational curriculum could be developed to be used by all schools, which would not only decrease educational disparities, but also begin to get at a root cause of sectarianism. This would in no way restrict Scots’ individual right to practice religion.

When I observe politics in the US and the UK, these issues seem to eternally consume the political debate, with little resolution in sight. They are marginal issues in France, because the laws and policies there are more settled and stable.

While fully recognising that these French policies are not directly transplantable, they could be developed and perfected in an independent Scotland.

Should Scots continue to let Tory think tanks, dripping with contempt for the underprivileged, continue to influence Scottish social policy? The 2014 referendum provides a compelling alternative.

Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.