People power in the new Scotland

Originally published on Newsnet Scotland

Scotland is at a unique point in its history.  At its recent conference, a bullish SNP announced the start of the campaign for Scottish independence.  This at a time when the global economic system is experiencing a systemic crisis of unprecedented scale, a time when the last of the post-war consensus in England is being ripped up, a time when people everywhere are crying out for change.

It seems certain that Scotland will achieve full fiscal autonomy.  It is entirely possible that we will see full-fledged independence.  This could be a triumph for the people of Scotland, but could just as easily be a disaster.  Have no doubt, the Scottish people will vote for a bold, self-confident vision of a Scotland responsible for its own affairs.  A Scotland with significant economic clout and a fair deal for working people and the disadvantaged.

Making this Scotland a reality will take more than a yes vote in a referendum: it will take a concerted effort by civil society – trade unions, NGOs, grassroots campaigns – to develop organisational capacity.  This capacity will be essential to regulating a society cast afloat on the international market, subject to sudden surges and withdrawals of capital.  Civil society must have the strength to assert the people’s will against these pressures.

Joseph Stiglitz, who the SNP have wisely brought in as an economic advisor, describes the dangers of what he calls the “hot money cycle”: speculative capital flows into an economy, producing an illusion of growth.  Sooner or later some happenstance causes the market to take fright, and the bubble collapses.  At this point austerity programmes are imposed, drastically harming ordinary people and lowering wages.  Scotland must avoid this fate.

Our own recent history shows that relying on parliament alone is not enough – every Scots parliament has had a nominal majority for social democracy, yet policy-making has been inconsistent.  We have no prescription charges, but we are seeing a decline in social housing stock.  We have reindustrialisation, but no national commitment to the living wage.  Our parliamentarians need social movements that can both support them and hold them to account.

The national debate on independence is a once in a generation opportunity to present a positive, inclusive concept of Scottishness based on internationalism and compassionate government.  A Scottish majority for social democracy.  A Scottish majority for full employment.  A Scottish majority for real, participative democracy.

This has to be more than mere words – it must be a movement in our workplaces and communities, something that is physically and socially present in the day-to-day lives of the people.  Something that is owned and shaped by them.

This is more than possible.  Many Scottish people define their politics against the ‘English’ Tories, never mind that within living memory the then-Unionist Party were the national party of Scotland.  There is a wealth of experience in our communities in tenant and workplace organising, of the bitter struggles of the 1970s and 1980s.  There are nostalgic memories of a time when Labour guaranteed good homes and good jobs.  The SNP, understanding this, are promising reindustrialisation, jobs, and a safety net for the poorest.  These basic political-economic desires return again and again through the last two hundred years of Scottish history.  We must take them and drive them to their logical conclusion.

We must at the same time be responsive to global changes: modern conceptions of power have combined with constant instant communication to create a strong drive to decentralisation.  The days of economies planned by government bureaucrats are gone.  We must instead pursue a vision of community control, insulated from the market by legal guarantees.

Andy Wightman has worked tirelessly for land reform in Scotland, and the furthering of his agenda to move Common Good land to community control would represent a real win for the Scottish people.  The creation of urban land trusts could finally end the blight of unsuitable housing and slum landlords, guaranteeing affordable housing for generations to come.  Micro-generation of electricity in communities, an idea that the Labour party has already backed, could end fuel poverty.  What these ideas share is that they create common property in a way that empowers people and improves their day-to-day standard of living.  They are winnable, and have support across party lines.

The challenge is that existing civil society in Scotland has been shaped by 30 years of seemingly eternal Labour Party rule.  Until now, deep links with Labour were a strength – Labour guaranteed industrial jobs and at a local level is still willing to do deals with the trade unions.  Now these links have led to a dependency, and become a weakness.  On the current evidence, even a yes-no vote will throw civil society into a tailspin, at the very moment when it is needed to shape the new Scotland.

There are many of us who dream of an independent Scotland that provides its people with jobs and security, that decentralises power, that gives its people a greater say in their own lives.  It falls to us to make it happen.

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