United We Stand

What’s at the heart of the Scottish Independence debate? What’s it really all about? In my first post on thedangerouscurve, Musings from the Island Line, I wrote;

“…don’t be fooled by the rationale which claims independence can be a tartan ejector seat from Tory government. It’s not a coincidence that the SNP have risen to power in Scotland under first a Blairite British Government and then a Conservative-led coalition in Westminster. Scots as a whole tend to be traditionally orientated towards left-leaning politics. However, trying to solve the problem of the drift to the Right in British politics through the method of Scottish independence is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.”

As an out and proud supporter of the No campaign, Better Together, I’ve been taking part in the online discussion through Twitter, arguing the case for the Union. What I’ve discovered has been both illuminating and disappointing in equal measure.

Disappointingly, I’ve discovered that my pro-Union compatriots are much less vocal – indeed much less present – in these online debates. Often it seems that the Yes camp is the only show in town when it comes to social media. Now, I’m not concerned that this is reflective of numbers for and against #indy; in my view it has a lot more to do with the zeal of the evangelist which, as the group advocating fundamental change, is more common amongst Yes Scotland supporters. Indeed, in my experience to date I’ve often found this zeal to spill over into vitriol or disdain when you dare disagree about the best path for Scotland’s future. In fairness, I’ve also found measured, thoughtful and passionate contributors amongst the Yes camp.

This imbalance disappoints me for two reasons. Firstly, Better Together is in danger of conceding that Yes Scotland is the truly grassroots movement, representing what the ‘people of Scotland’ want. We’re giving the impression that the Yes vote is much larger than I believe it actually is. It is certainly giving the Yes camp a sense of momentum at the time of writing. Secondly, the apathy of the silent majority (a majority which has been represented in every poll on the subject of #indy to date) allows Yes Scotland and its supporters to articulate the No vote’s argument for us. Instead of Better Together and its supporters making the positive case for the United Kingdom and everything that it offers, Yes supporters can caricature the campaign to maintain the Union as ‘Project Fear’.

It’s nevertheless been interesting to engage with my fellow Scots from the Yes camp and to learn about their motives for seeking Scottish Independence. If I was to broadly summarise the issues and ideals that seem to motivate them to support Independence, I would suggest that they believe the following. They see Independence as:

  1. An opportunity to create a more socially just nation
  2. An opportunity for Scotland finally to be recognised as a nation in its own right
  3. An opportunity to create a wealthier, more prosperous Scotland
  4. An opportunity to undo historic wrongs done to Scotland
  5. An opportunity for Scotland to cut the Tory apron strings, represented in all of the above

I am sure that there are other motives for the Yes camp which I’ve not listed here. I’m also sure that Yes supporters would articulate these reasons in a more elaborate or different way. But I’m confident that these points summarise the main thrust of their rationale.

If that’s the case, then how do we respond? Well, as I suggest above, we need to do a lot more than just respond. We need to pro-actively advocate for the Union and all the benefits that it brings to us all. The core of our argument needs to be found in the counterpoint to reasons 1 and 5 above. So let me quickly deal with reasons 2 to 4.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it really isn’t necessary in the 21st century for one’s nationhood to be dependent on or equivalent to political autonomy. Is my Scottishness innately diminished because I cast a vote to send a politician to Westminster rather than Holyrood to create Foreign Affairs, Welfare and Fiscal Policy? I don’t think so. Scottish nationhood is so much more than a political jurisdiction. The zero-sum, nation-state equation presented by the SNP and others is an unnecessary and inaccurate shibboleth.

Likewise, the economic argument is to me a distraction. Should the bottom line really be the bottom line in making our decision on Union or Independence? Some commentators have suggested that Scotland could be more prosperous as an independent country. Many more have suggested the opposite. But even if it could be unequivocally proven that the likes of oil, whisky and engineering could buoy the Scottish Exchequer in the seas of economic uncertainty and excessive Bank loans to GDP ratios that independence would bring, is that really the point? Does a few quid (or Euros, or Scottish Pounds) on our wage packet buy us out of our unity and solidarity with our friends from Wales, England and Northern Ireland? The truth is, over time, wealth comes and goes. What’s more important is how we as a society use the wealth that we do have. When it comes to the independence referendum, it really is not the economy stupid.

On the issue of historic wrongs, there is no question that they exist. Edward, Hammer of the Scots, The Highland Clearances, Maggie Thatcher’s Poll Tax; all of these loom large in the Scottish psyche. Indeed, some argue, the origin of the Union itself is tarred by the aristocrats who – on both sides – negotiated it without exactly focussing on the interests of the wider population of Scotland. But – leaving aside the historic wrongs which the Scots visited on England – are we to be bound by this narrative when we imagine our future? What concerns me is where we’re going, not where we’ve come from. What should concern us is creating a more egalitarian, more just, more harmonious, more compassionate society. True, this will include recognising that historic events and decisions have created the unequal society that we live in today. But only so that we know where to focus our efforts in building a more just society. And so, to my main point.

It’s social justice that seems to motivate many of the Yes campaigners whom I come into contact with. The paradox is that it’s also social justice which motivates many of us on the No side. We agree that, under Blairism and the prefix ‘New’, the rump of the Left lost its way towards the end of the Labour Government through mistakes like PFI, the abolition of the 10p tax rate and an unethical foreign policy.

What we particularly agree on is that British politics has taken a lunge to the right since the 2010 General Election: The Bedroom Tax, Atos assessments for DLA, anti-immigrant rhetoric, aggressive benefits sanctions, tax cuts for millionaires and the government’s failure to deal with the culture of the Financial Sector, so brutally exemplified in the Banker’s Bonus and Robin Hood Tax rows. All of these factors unite those of us on the Left who are tired of a culture of blaming the most vulnerable in society for the failings of the elite.

The enemies of social justice are a combination of apathy towards the political process, fear and individualism; the sense that I can’t change the system, and that the state of the economy means I’d be better off just looking after myself. It’s this apathy and fear that ushered the Conservative Party into government in 2010. It’s the (irrational) fear of economic meltdown that is raising the rhetoric against Eastern European immigrants. It’s the legacy of historic grievances and narrow identity politics that catalyses a retrenchment into Scottish Nationalism. It’s the failure to imagine just what could be achieved in our wee multi-national country if those of us on the left put aside our narrow selfishness and strove for solidarity, activism and unity.

Those in the Yes camp have concluded that the game is up. To them, the British experiment has failed to deliver the fruits of social justice. Leaving aside the exponential improvement in living standards across the British Isles in the last 307 years as we became the 7th largest economy on earth (with a smaller population than all above us on the list), we must acknowledge that there is a long way to go in achieving true social justice in the UK. Indeed, it will be a mission that is never truly complete. The search for social justice must be a permanent and indefinite state of mind. And I believe, to paraphrase a fellow-traveller, Dr Dave Landrum, that the fight for the Common Good within the United Kingdom is both missional and possible.

This week the Tory MP, Rory Stewart talked about the need for us to show the love that exists between the four nations of the Union by forming a human chain along Hadrian’s Wall. Well, in the words of Pink and Nate Ruess:

“Just a little bit’s enough. Just a second, we’re not broken, just bent, and we can learn to love again.”

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Maggie Thatcher’s Christmas Gift Card

When was the last time you received a Gift Card at Christmas? Were you pleased that you could choose a present for yourself instead of leaving the big decision up to your granny? Or were you just disappointed at the thoughtlessness of the gift giver?

Recently I’ve been re-reading Michael Sandel’s seminal book on the ever-expanding realm of economic theory, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel is no anarcho-syndicalist (thank you, Monty Python) or socialist. He sees the importance of the traditional market economy to ordering the economic transactions of society. However, he also sees the march of Economics into areas of life which once seemed beyond its remit and worries that the market economy is slowly morphing into a market society.

One of the examples which he gives of this ’commercialisation effect’ is our increasing tendency to give each other vouchers or straightforward cash instead of a personalised gift. To the utilitarian, this exchange makes perfect sense: we each know what we want for ourselves more than others do. So, if we give each other gift cards or cash (the ultimate credit note, redeemable anywhere) we maximise utility. But where does this leave thoughtfulness, the personal touch, the feeling of the gesture? For example, would you give your mum a cash gift for her 60th birthday without feeling a little bit naff? Does reducing gift-giving to the level of a utilitarian transaction diminish it somehow?

I believe that it does, and I share Sandel’s concern about the impact that commercialisation is having in Britain today as the dominant socio-political ideology of our time. Gift cards are just a symptom of a phenomenon which affects much more than Santa’s Christmas present list.

Although the dawn of the market society in Britain has had many catalysts, it was the High Priest of Capitalism Margaret Thatcher and the ism which she spawned which did most to establish the altar of commercialism in the modern era. Without the eighteen years of Conservative government in the late 20th Century (eleven of them under Thatcher), it’s hard to imagine the recent privatisation of the Royal Mail and the commercialisation of the National Health Service (for example via the tendering process) going ahead. Thatcher’s shadow looms large over British politics and the British media, to the extent that the legislation to introduce these changes was passed with barely a whimper from those of us on the Left, let alone the wider public. In the 1970s, such changes would have led to social unrest.

But should we care in 2013? Surely market reasoning can introduce greater efficiency into the public services which we enjoy in this country, and the cost-savings that we so badly need to help us address a record national debt of £1.3 trillion? There is no doubt in my mind that the public sector does have lessons to learn from the private sector and the rigor of the market economy.

However, returning to Sandel’s rationale, I fear we’re in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water if we allow our public services to become subsumed into the ideology of a market society. The means do not always justify the ends. As Sandel suggests, the market society model can lead to the moral values which underpin our society – for example, the selfless act of gift-giving – being ‘crowded out’ by more utilitarian concerns, or quite simply the bottom line.

For instance, the commercialisation of the Healthcare System – like the tendering out of certain NHS services to Virgin Care and other private healthcare providers – fundamentally changes the nature of healthcare and the way in which it is provided. By necessity, it’s the Profit Principle which predominates in a commercial venture: the profitability of the healthcare provision matters most, at least to the owners or shareholders of the company providing it. By default, this pushes the principle of Service for its own sake down the list of competing priorities.

Commercialisation of public services can alter the way in which they are delivered too. In recent years, we’ve seen how using low-paid, low-skilled (and cheap) staff in privately-run care homes can create an ‘it’s just a job’ culture in which an attitude of distain for the patients can arise. Services which safeguard the dignity of vulnerable patients are more likely in a context where those serving see their job as a vocation which is highly-valued by society, and view good service as a worthy end in itself, not just a means by which to secure the next lucrative contract.

And commercialisation also affects the way in which services are received. If I’m a client – as opposed to a patient – I may be more likely to feel short-changed (with all the impatience, and lack of understanding that this can entail) if I don’t receive the standard of care that I expect for myself, however high or unrealistic my standards are. If you’ve spend any time in an Accident & Emergency reception recently, you may know what I mean.

So the means do affect the ends, and in this case in a way that diminishes the service which keeps our country healthy. Or for that matter in a way which disadvantages those who live in a far flung location. Why should a business, whose raison d’etre is primarily to make a profit, prioritise a service which is cost-intensive but delivers very little financial gain? Sorry, Isle of Lewis, it’s just too awkward (i.e. expensive) to deliver your Christmas presents this year.

The benefit of a publicly-owned postal service on the other hand is that it aggregates the risk for the family living on a small island. Their post is relatively affordable to deliver because the volume of deliveries in London makes the enterprise profitable overall. It’s solidarity which presides, not narrow selfishness.

In the race to the bottom line which commercialisation of our public services brings, we are in danger of brushing aside the values on which they have previously been founded: civic virtue, solidarity, compassion, fraternity, fairness and even-handedness. Instead, utility, efficiency, wealth and individualism predominate.

I think Sandel sums the danger up well when he says:

“This economistic view of virtue fuels the faith in markets and propels their reach into places they don’t belong. … Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles which grow stronger and develop with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously”.

So, this Christmas, if you receive a Gift Card, do remember and thank Maggie.