Friday, 22 August 2014

A(nother) commentary on “Scotland's Future”

You’ve read the press commentary, heard comments on the radio and seen them on the Beeb. So here is one more view on the Scottish Government’s proposals.

It’s clear

Important, in a document that you want voters to read.

The book (I read the electronic version) is in clear English. Technical terms are explained, and the layout, with a chapter on each main area of government, and 650 questions – which form an index, referring back to content in the book – is easy to use and understand.

The text distinguishes between the changes that will happen if a majority votes Yes in 2014, and the policies that the current Government would bring in if they win the planned 2016 elections. That is an important distinction. The referendum is about one question – independence. If a majority vote “Yes” then there will be an election in 2016 at which Scots can vote Labour, Tory, SNP, Green, Raving Monster Loony, Jedi Knight or whatever they want.

I’ve never read a book on how to run a whole country

This book covers almost everything. From the armed forces to women’s rights and from banking to whisky exports. I’ve never read a book that describes in detail how to run a country; it is like a Haynes Manual for Scotland, showing how the engine works and how to fix the air conditioning.

It’s a rebuild

The writers of this book are drafting a new country, and that gives plenty of opportunities to put right the things that are inherited, wrong, when you carry on carrying on in an old country. For example, “Scotland’s Future” proposes that Scotland should have a written constitution. Yes! Of course it should! Every modern democracy does!

The Poor, and the Rich

There is a lot of focus on the poor, and on the wealth gap; “poverty” is mentioned 82 times. This, for me personally, is the most important part of any Government’s work. How we treat our poor is the measure of our civilisation.

The UK’s record is not good. You don’t really need statistics (“Scotland’s Future” includes plenty) to know about poverty, and the substantial gap between rich and poor in the UK; next time you buy a copy of The Big Issue, just ask the vendor about her or his life and you’ll get the picture. But just in case you do like the certainty of numbers here are a few from my own research:

The poorest tenth of the UK population, 2.6 million households had, in 2011/12, a disposable income of £174 each week. The wealthiest tenth, again 2.6m households, had a weekly disposable income of £1,452, eight times as much. [Source: Office of National Statistics Family Spending 2013, Chapter 3, Table 14] These are the numbers behind the “Gini Coefficient”, the OECD’s measure of the gap between rich and poor (in fact the OECD, using a slightly different base, calculate the difference in disposable incomes as 10 times).

The UK has the seventh largest wealth gap, measured by the Gini Coefficient, amongst 34 countries analysed by the OECD [Source: Gini Coefficient of Household Disposable Income 2010, Fig. 4, OECD]. Amongst the few countries with wider wealth gaps are, er, Chile, Mexico and Turkey, while fairer, much fairer countries include all of the Nordic states, Germany, Netherlands, Hungary and even Switzerland.

Leaving your poor to become (relatively) poorer while your rich become richer, as the UK has done since the 1980s is, for me, a moral abomination. But it is also bad news economically. I interviewed a medical researcher a while ago who told me that the UK’s wealth gap was the indirect cause of illness and of educational failure. There are many studies that show that when countries reduce the gap they improve health and educational outcomes for the whole population.

Hidden in the text is a technical phrase that shows a newer style of thinking about poverty and welfare. Welfare is described as a “’social investment’ – an investment across a person’s life that is designed at all stages to promote equality, fairness and social cohesion.” [p109] This style of thinking, using investment principles in social provision underlies much of the new thinking in philanthropy and particularly the world of “venture philanthropy.” This direction, should it be taken by a Scottish Government, would be a radical departure from Westminster’s “handout” thinking.

“Scotland’s Future” focuses on poverty and on reducing the wealth gap – these are central ideas, backbone, to this particular vision of how Scotland should be. For me, they give this vision a moral value that others lack.


The situation of women in Scotland is another central theme in this book. In part this is linked to poverty; the majority of the lowest paid workers in Scotland are women, says the book, and women live longer and thus are more dependent on pension provision, so the book lays out plans for linking pensions to inflation. There are plans for universal childcare from age one; with women as, still, the main child carers at home this would allow women to return to work and earning sooner.

“Scotland’s Future” also has plans for boosting the number of women in positions of power. In fact the Scottish Parliament has already done much of this; 35% of MSPs are women [source] against 22% of MPs in Westminster. There are a number of reasons for this but one is the simple, stupid but practical fact that the working hours in Westminster are horrible (I’ve worked there, and know), with debates going on late into the night. This does not attract women, or anyone who cares for a family. By contrast, the Scottish Parliament works until 6pm. Yes! Sensible!

More Good Stuff

And there is more, most of it easy to agree with; continuing free university education, a rebuilt taxation system, a focus on renewable energy, and a constitutional pledge to provide 0.7% of GDP for international development work…

Yes, I know. Who pays for this?

Who Pays for This?

We will, of course.

“Scotland’s Future” says “there is no requirement to increase taxes to pay for the services we currently enjoy in Scotland.” [page 83]. I have no way of assessing that claim.

But tackling the wealth gap means taking money from people who are wealthier, and shifting it to people who are poorer. This does not have to mean loads more taxation; Austria, where the wealth gap is one third narrower than in the UK, takes less taxes out of personal income than the UK does. So do Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, to pick a selection of European states, all with substantially narrower wealth gaps than the UK [sources: Gini coefficient of household disposable income 2010, and Taxation Key Tables, OECD, 2010].

This is not smoke and mirrors. People who are wealthier will have to pay more tax, if the vision set out in “Scotland’s Future” is played out. Then it becomes a simple choice: are you willing to pay a little more in order to make a fairer society for everyone?

This is not the Future

This book is a vision. It is how one group of people would like Scotland to be. It is not, of course, a description of how things will be. No one can write that book, outside of a Tardis.

But that is what we always have, in politics. Our politicians tell us about their vision and we vote for it, or we don’t. We can no more tell whether the vision of Messrs Cameron and Clegg will play out, or whether it will be the UKIP vision that will dominate in UK politics. We cannot know in advance of a referendum how negotiations over the pound, the EU, the Queen, or Scotland’s membership of the International Monetary Fund will go; but this group of people have told us what they will be aiming for when they negotiate.

The vision in “Scotland’s Future”, with its focus on women’s rights and on a rebuilt modern state with a written constitution would be enough to make me vote Yes, if I could vote. But above all, the vision of reducing the appalling wealth gap in the UK and the effects that has on millions of very poor people, is the vision of a fair, good country. For that alone I would vote Yes.

No comments:

Post a Comment