Prospect of independence drives Scottish politics left

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By John McAllion

The election in 2011 of a majority SNP government made certain that there would be an independence referendum in the lifetime of this Scottish Parliament. 

It also ensured that there would have to be a wide-ranging public debate about the kind of country that Scotland might become after independence.

Initially, this debate appeared to be driving politics in Scotland to the right.  The SNP government embraced monarchy, the pound sterling, membership of NATO and Scotland’s armed forces in its bid not to frighten the establishment horses. 

Labour for its part gave notice via Johan Lamont’s now infamous speech that they had embraced austerity politics and would end welfare universalism in a “something for nothing” Scotland.

Both parties had fought the 2011 election on promises not to use the parliament’s tax-varying power while imposing a freeze on council taxes.  Both claimed to champion business and enterprise.  Both promised “efficiency savings” in public spending.

It was no secret that the SNP wanted control of corporation tax in order to cut it for companies based in Scotland.  Labour set up a Cuts Commission with a chairman promising that every aspect of public spending in Scotland would now be under review.

Gradually, however, other progressive voices began to be heard in a debate that was much wider than the two big parties.  The SSP continued to make the case for a socialist independent Scotland in public meetings up and down the length of the country.

The Radical Independence Campaign attracted 800 activists to its launch conference in Glasgow.  The Jimmy Reid Foundation launched its Common Weal proposals to develop a Scottish version of the alternative economic and social models found in Nordic countries such as Norway, Finland and Denmark.

Meanwhile, alongside of the core independence debate, other kinds of politics continued to happen and to change the Scottish public’s perceptions of the kind of Scotland they wanted to live in.  There was near universal revulsion against the hated Bedroom Tax.  Zero hours contracts convinced many that the balance of power between employers and employees had swung far too far in favour of the former.

Energy bosses, like bankers, were widely condemned for their greedy profiting at the expense of the poor.  The proliferation of food banks in one of the wealthiest countries in the world signalled that inequality was now a national disgrace.

Opinion polls and focus groups began to pick up these changing social and political attitudes.  The old certainties around low taxes, free markets and less government that had dominated politics for a generation no longer looked so convincing.

The success of the renationalised East Coast Main Line had shown how public ownership works for workers and travellers alike.  The rip-off sale of the Royal Mail aroused widespread opposition to the very idea of privatising public services.  Grangemouth and the humbling of Britain’s biggest trade union demonstrated clearly that real economic power remained in the hands of the very few.

Mainstream politicians are never slow to detect such shifts in public opinion.  Aware that majority opinion in Scotland was to the left of their own political programmes, both the SNP and Labour began to change political direction.

Each challenged the other on who could be trusted to scrap the Bedroom Tax first.  In the Dunfermline by-election, the Labour candidate rediscovered her support for universal benefits and her opposition to Johann Lamont’s ideas around a “something for nothing” culture.

Lamont herself would later deny she ever used those words.  More importantly, both parties began to look seriously at the Common Weal proposals.

Johann Lamont arranged for the Jimmy Reid Foundation to brief Labour MSPs and researchers on proposals that include higher taxes, wealth redistribution, a cradle to grave welfare state and strong public services.

The SNP conference in Perth voted to examine the same Common Weal proposals further as a potential economic and social template for an independent Scotland.

Without the independence referendum, it is unlikely that any of these developments would have taken place.  The Jimmy Reid Foundation has admitted that their Common Weal idea emerged only because the debate about Scotland’s future had “opened a window” to social and economic models outside of the UK.

Within a wholly devolved political context it is likely that Holyrood’s politicians would have gone on arguing about how differently they would spend the money Westminster allocated to them each year.  The independence debate has brought back onto Scotland’s political agenda debates long missing from our mainstream political parties’ thinking.

The idea that markets should drive economic and social development is at last being seriously challenged.  Public ownership is being rehabilitated in exciting new forms including co-operatives, mutuals and local and regional public ownership.

The argument around the welfare state now focuses on why Scotland lacks the cradle-to-grave cover enjoyed by workers in the Nordic countries.  Eradicating income and wealth inequality is again at the heart of political debate.

The prospect of independence is driving Scottish politics to the left.  Where might actual independence take us?

Courtesy of the Scottish Socialist Voice