Dreaming of a different Scotland: alt independence and alt unionism

It isn't enough that we aren't Thatcherites and free-marketeers, visions of the sort of Scotland we want to build must escape the confines of current conservatism and move beyond oppositional formulations. Scotland must be a positive proposition.

Gerry Hassan
26 February 2013

Social justice is everywhere north of the border. It has always been about but now it has become more explicit. As the debate on Scotland’s independence referendum hots up, the Westminster Government’s welfare plans show their character and the Tory intent at inhumane social engineering, while the market fundamentalist project of the last three decades proposes at the moment of crisis and doubt, to go into over-drive.

The last week has seen Anas Sarwar, Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour, give an important speech on this terrain, followed by the ‘Yes Scotland’s’ mini-summit on social justice and its response to the STUC’s ‘A Just Scotland’ document.

In-between we have had another litany of grim statistics telling the familiar story of the inequality, poverty and exclusion in Glasgow and parts of the West of Scotland. And the now well-trodden path of politicians and public sector professionals saying they have learned from the past and embraced new thinking.

Part of all this is a ritual dance, mythology and folklore, what people do in Scotland in positions of power and influence to show they are different and they care. Part of it is something that makes up genuinely who we are, our collective aspirations for the future, and our difference from Westminster.

Professor John Curtice might argue that there are dangers for all the Scottish political parties going down this route, that Scots are as hardline on welfare as elsewhere in the UK, but this isn’t the whole picture (1). The idea and vision of social justice seeps through the character and culture of large parts of Scotland yet there is admittedly a historic gap between how we see ourselves and what government and others do.

Anas Sarwar’s speech was one which emphasised values and Labour values: community, solidarity, fairness, equality and social justice. It was a decent beginning of a Labour conversation on a subject it hasn’t talked about and championed enough in Scotland in recent times.

It was one which rightly pointed out SNP silences on redistribution, yet was missing any understanding and acknowledgement of Labour’s mistakes in office. Perhaps even more seriously there was little grasp that the state of modern Scotland is one which Labour bears quite a bit of responsibility for, through years of governing at local and national level.

At the same time, Arthur Midwinter has produced an interim report for Labour identifying the costs of continuing the council tax freeze and free tuition fees, and called for better targeting of resources to those in need.

The ‘Yes Scotland’ paper is a decent, liberal-minded document informed by a belief in a Scotland in which every citizen has rights, responsibilities and opportunities. However, it falls into the ‘catch-all’ problem which the SNP embraces and which has also so far affected ‘Yes Scotland’.

It is for universalism, opposes Westminster welfare reform and supports free higher education. But there is no sense that social justice involves hard choices, saying no to existing vested interests and policy preferences, and mobilising new alliances.

There is potential in this document, aspiration for a Scotland different from today, but often it glosses over points of substance or difficulty. What sort of welfare state does an independent Scotland aspire too, and what values will inform it? We still don’t know.

One example of the paper’s shortcomings is its short section on community empowerment which identifies the land reform legislation of the first Scottish Parliament as one such set of measures (an area the SNP have been nearly completely inactive and silent on in office). It shows no grasp of the legacy of disempowerment and disconnection which characterises large parts of society, and which government and ‘official Scotland’ have done little to address.

There are openings and good things in both of these perspectives and they could form the beginning of a grown-up debate. If so they will have to address the most influential analysis in Scotland about inequality which is centred on an asset-based approach. Government and public agencies, and the current Chief Medical Officer, Harry Burns, have increasingly championed this.

The asset-based approach has its roots in a radical community based outlook, one that challenges professional interests, but it has become increasingly adopted by those self-same groups. It has become a palliative, about psychology, seeing individuals as the problem and solution, and silent on power dynamics.

Inherent in the asset approach is emphasising the capacity, resources and skills of individuals, rather than deficits and wider socio-economic environment. This is all fine and well, but in the mantra of the Scottish Government it has become narrowly focused on welfare while ignoring labour markets and the economy.

It has been silent on a whole host of important areas: rising inequality, the increasing anti-welfare culture, ideology and values, and the role of market fundamentalism in changing assumptions.

What it does say a lot about, in the words of Harry Burns, is that ‘what we have tried to date (although well-meaning) has not worked’. That might be a helpful admission, but in the next breath the Scottish Government talks of ‘a culture of dependency’ – a language and outlook which invokes pathologising and blaming people for the plight they are in – something inherent in the watered down asset approach.

In part this is about the disappointment of a whole generation of public leaders and professionals that the people have not proven themselves worthy of being ‘model citizens’. We have in Scotland been here many times before.

The public health expert Lynne Friedli has written persuasively in specialist journals of the inadequacies of this thinking, of seeing it as the latest elite mantra after ‘social capital’ excited a whole pile of professionals a decade ago; that had an extensive evidence base behind it. The same cannot be said of the asset-based approach.

Friedli writes of the slow hollowing out of that approach from its radical origins at the hands of the Scottish Government and the Chief Medical Officer, Harry Burns. There has emerged a near-obsession with ‘psycho-social factors … while leaving power and privilege intact’ and a ‘silence about political struggle’, which buys into for its rhetoric the reality of depowerment and collusion with New Right language and thinking.

The limits of the Yes and No campaigns with their catch-all characteristics are obvious. Both seem to be unaware of the scale of the challenge within and outwith Scotland, and in the latter the onward march of one-dimensional market fundamentalism. The limits of professional Scotland with their abilities to set budgets, priorities and mood music, and influence and advise politicians, is much more deep-seated, serious and needing examining.

There are a plethora of measures that Scotland could debate and consider to tackle Scotland’s real shame: our endemic inequality in a land which believes it is one which cares about social justice.

We could look at mitigating the bedroom tax and could consider, irrespective of what Westminster does, a Scottish mansion tax; a solidarity levy in this period of crisis which would show our egalitarian credentials. We could look at prioritising early years intervention rather than just having expert reports identifying how to do redistribution, and even a citizens’ income.

Most fundamentally, the philosophy which has governed Scotland for decades, benign paternalism and liberal professionalism, cannot go unchallenged. It might not talk and think the language of the free market vandals down south, but it has contributed significantly to the state of Scotland we currently see. It’s part of the problem, not the solution.

Intrinsic to the Scottish dimension, and one of its central dynamics, has been the palpable though often unstated sense of dreaming of a different Scotland. By this I mean how Scottish politics and priorities sit within a broadly social democratic landscape and language. It is far removed from, wary of and in opposition to the Westminster consensus.

For this to take form and substance, the Scottish debate has to begin questioning, scrutinising and holding to account the professional elite vision of society, as well as the complacent, insular, self-congratulatory tone of parts of our mainstream politics - it isn’t enough that we aren’t Tories, Thatcherites or marketeers.

Instead, there has to be a recognition that the current visions of independence and the union are a product of this caution and conservatism, and that if we are to turn these collective dreams and aspirations into reality, there has to be an alt-independence and alt-unionism which draw from and supports an alt-Scotland vision and politics. That matters much more than the current safety first incrementalism currently on offer; we have to dare to dream of a different Scotland.



1. John Curtice, Institute of Governance seminar on Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, Edinburgh, January 23rd 2013

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