Why Salmond’s fair society trumps Cameron’s bogus ‘big society’

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by George Kerevan

THE media have invented something called “Indy Lite”, implying that the SNP has watered down its commitment to Scottish independence in favour of some maximal form of devolution. Last Thursday, the First Minister gave his opening speech to the new Scottish Parliament, presenting the coming year’s legislative programme.

But rather than talk about any supposed Indy Lite, Alex Salmond fired the opening salvo in the referendum campaign by articulating a radical vision of the kind of society the SNP wants to create – a Fair Society in contrast to David Cameron’s Big Society, otherwise known as Thatcherism Lite.

This Fair Society, Salmond contrasts with the “harsher” approach of the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition in England, which (under the rubric of the Big Society) is imposing austerity; reducing collective provision in favour of voluntary agencies; and generally favouring American-style individualism over mutual solidarity.

A mistaken few will cry “racist”, claiming Salmond is hinting that English society has become competitive, individualistic and uncaring in the years since Maggie Thatcher. Actually, the whole of Western society has moved in that direction. The fruits of our collective consumerism and greed were seen in the credit boom and subsequent bust.

However, no one can deny the fact that Salmond’s SNP has taken a very different road from Cameron and Clegg – scrapping prescription charges and student fees, freezing council tax, and tilting against privatisation. That has brought short-term gain in the shape of the SNP’s massive win on May 5.

But the gain could be long lasting. The latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that 60 per cent of people want Holyrood to control Scotland’s £18 billion pension and welfare budget (currently run by Westminster), while 59 per cent want taxation decided in Edinburgh. These views are not based on deep constitutional analysis. Folk think they will get a better deal from the Scottish Parliament. Outside of defence and foreign policy, Salmond is pushing at an open door with his referendum.  

Another critique of Salmond’s “fair Scotland” versus “harsh England” line – seen in some of the “quality” Scottish media – is that he is trying to buy support with financial giveaways that are unsustainable in the longer term. Mention is made of the fact that this year’s Holyrood budget has been cut by £1.7 billion, with more to come.

But Scottish voters are not dumb. It is impossible to reconcile the extent of the SNP’s recent election victory with the notion the electorate were duped – especially given the fact that middle-class professionals voted en masse for the SNP while favouring the Tories and (at the 2010 election) Lib Dems in England.

It is much more plausible that Salmond has struck a cord with his vision of what people in Scotland see as the society they want to live in. For instance, a recent study by Professor John Curtice, for the Scottish Centre for Social Research, found that many more people in Scotland than in England favour the idea of providing free personal care for the elderly: 57 per cent compared with 42 per cent.

By way of further evidence, it is worth noting that the latest Ipsos Mori UK poll has the Cameron’s Tories down five points to 35 per cent. And only 29 per cent of Britons expect the economy to improve this year, against 42 per cent who think it will get worse. Verdict: even people in England are inclined to agree with Salmond’s view that Cameron’s policies are harsh.

One institution that does think the Coalition is being extreme is the OECD, the international economic watchdog. Last week it downgraded its forecast of UK economic growth to 1.4 per cent for 2011. The OECD pinned this on the Coalition raising VAT and cutting consumer income.

Here we come to the key issue with Salmond’s plan for a Fair Society. Could an independent Scotland improve economic growth sufficiently – and quickly enough – to support the SNP’s public spending plans?  As it is, the Scottish economy contracted by five per cent following the recession of 2008. Thanks to John Swinney, it has returned to growth, but output is still four per cent below peak.

The Fair Society the SNP is offering in an independent Scotland depends on maintaining a balance between high social welfare benefits and a successful market economy to pay for them. Over the last 30 years, under London control, the Scottish economy has grown on average at only 1.9 per cent per annum. We need get to 2.5 per cent plus to match Scandinavian levels of wealth. But that is only possible with independence to run our own economic affairs.

Proof that a Fair Society is possible lies with the current experience in most of the European small economies. This year, growth rates are: Sweden (4.5), Finland (3.8), Austria (2.9), Switzerland (2.7) and Norway (2.5). And that’s in a period of global downturn.

Fair Society versus bogus Big Society? On the evidence so far, Scotland prefers the SNP’s idea of what society should look like. Which is why we will win the referendum.