In my first post on the Scottish referendum debate I noted that the Yes campaign appeared to be offering something positive while the No campaign was involved in almost purely negative rhetoric. This is also how it appears in the left case for Scottish separation. This argues that a Yes vote will open up a Scottish road, if not to socialism, then to a place that brings the possibility of achieving socialism much nearer.
There are two parts to this assertion. First that Scotland is in some senses more left wing than England (Wales it would seem, unfortunately, doesn’t really count) and secondly that ‘independence’ would free Scotland, the Scottish people or the Scottish working class, to make advances to socialism. Sometimes socialism is framed in terms of a kind of Scandinavian social democracy and sometimes in more radical terms.
Let’s take these claims one by one.
First that Scotland is more left wing, radical or in some way more egalitarian; a more fertile ground for socialism if separated from the rest of Britain.
Marxists believe that the ideas in peoples’ heads arise not simply from within their heads, from preformed views, but are a result of their interaction with the world around them, particularly their interaction with fellow human beings, through the way that the society in which they live is structured. One fundamental way society is structured is how people cooperate to produce the means by which they survive and prosper, or otherwise. This involves the creation of classes and even when not class conscious workers’ views of the world are heavily imprinted by the fact that they see the world as workers.
This means that if Scottish workers are in some fundamental sense more egalitarian or progressive this should be reflected in Scottish society. This does not mean that there is any one-to-one correlation between the economic and social structure of society and the politics expressed in that society but if there was a strong and persistent egalitarian politics within Scotland while its society was not otherwise very different from, say England, this would require some explanation, especially since both have existed under the same state and both with a similar relationship to that state.
Inequality is high in the UK relative to other OECD countries, ranked 7th out of 35. Inequality in Scotland is lower than it is in the rest of the UK, a result of particularly high inequality in London, resulting in inequality in Scotland being roughly equivalent to the median level of the OECD. Tax and social transfers by the UK state are slightly more redistributive than other OECD states but not particularly high given the higher initial level of inequality.
Inequality has been rising in the OECD countries for the past few decades and particularly in the 1980s and 1990s in the UK, although it has been rising at a much slower rate since. In the OECD however it grew much more quickly in this latter period and even more so in the Nordic countries that the SNP and some on the left see as the model to emulate.
The level and worsening trend of inequality in Scotland is therefore very similar to that of the rest of the UK outside London. The richest 1% of Scotland’s adult population earned 6.3% of total pre-tax income in 1997 and 9.4% in 2009. In Sweden the richest 1% increased its share to 9%.
This growing failure of the Nordic countries is a result of growing basic inequality in these countries and a reduction in effectiveness of redistributive policies. In addition some of these Nordic countries display high levels of wealth (as opposed to income) inequality.
The authors of the report from which these figures are taken state that adoption of Nordic style redistribution policies would not result in closing the gap between Scotland and the Nordic countries given the different starting points of inequality. That is, given the basic inequality within the economic system to begin with before tax and benefit changes involving redistribution.
The authors point out that in order to redistribute income from high earners to lower income earners you need high earners in the first place. In other words the basic economic system must still be inequitable. It is not a very robust socialist policy to rely on income inequality based on basic economic relationships to generate the revenue to equalise society. It accepts this basic inequality and hopes that the rich will simply accept that they become significantly less rich despite the underlying inequality of power.
This is why Marxists do not place much faith in any capitalist state redistributing the high incomes of the rich to workers, not to mention their wealth and ownership of capital. In its place we seek the growth of worker-owned production so that more equal income and power relations are generated by workers through their own actions rather than rely on taxing – and therefore relying on – the unequal ownership of productive resources. The identification of socialism with acceptance of basic capitalist relations and the simple amelioration of the worst effects of this by state tax and spending is therefore mistaken. It has increasingly failed in those countries held up as the exemplars of success.
One of the authors in ‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’ illustrate the figures above:
“. . . Scotland is a capitalist, class society with staggering inequalities of wealth and power. One study, in 2003, showed that two Edinburgh districts have more millionaires than anywhere in Britain other than Hampshire in London. ‘Blackhill is better heeled than Belgravia and Morningside is more upmarket than Mayfair’ reported the Telegraph (6 February 2003). Contrast this to the figure that men in the Calton ward of Glasgow live to an average age of 54. With these facts in mind, we dispute any idea that Scotland has a distinctively ‘collectivist’ civil society. The neo-liberal trajectory in Scotland, like elsewhere, has led to extreme polarisation of income.”
So Scotland is not an unusually equal society and is much like most of the rest of Britain, outside London, and even London (!) has many millions of working class residents.
However I did say that there is no one-to-one correlation between the economic and social structure of society and the politics expressed in that society. The report above notes that there is “some evidence for preference heterogeneity between Scotland and the rest of the UK. . . As well as persistent differences in voting patterns according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, Scots are: more likely than English voters to think the gap between high and low incomes is too large (78% v. 74%); are more likely to support government efforts at redistribution (43% v. 34%); are more likely to say that social benefits are not high enough (6.2% v. 3.6%); and more likely that unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship (22% v. 18%).
What is noteworthy about these results is not the differences, which are not pronounced except perhaps somewhat in attitudes towards redistribution, but how similar they are – how the first question results in high scores in both and such low scores for the third question in both. Since all the questions are aspects of workers dependence on the state, except the first, they measure not so much attitudes to socialism but attitudes to reliance on the state, which workers must overcome to realise their own society.
The Red Paper collective provides further evidence of similarities of views in England and Scotland.[i] It quotes a Nuffield foundation report in 2011 which “concluded that in terms of being ‘more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best’. In what perhaps should serve as a warning for those who would conflate constitutional and social change they also note that “Like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution.”
The data quoted by the Red Paper collective shows that when it comes to the three northern regions of England not only are there no big differences in attitudes compared to Scotland but no real difference at all. They therefore state that “insisting progress for people in Scotland depends on independence is saying that those with similar problems and outlook to our own must be written off as partners in building something better.”
“The problems facing Merseyside and Clydeside have the same causes and as we have seen, people feel similarly about them. Maintaining that the difficulties of the former are ‘economic’ and the latter ‘national’ is to take the advocates of nationalism at face value. Accepting rather than analysing their claims, and ignoring the reality of class power.”
The telling of national myths should be left to nationalists. “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education” says Alex Salmond. In fact the national story of Scotland is failure to build an empire by itself and then joining the English in creation of a British empire in which the values of compassion, equality and empowerment were conspicuous by their absence.
“A more collective sense of society, of looking out for one another, is a strong part of Scottish life” says the chief executive of the Yes campaign. Except the figures for inequality and working class mortality in Glasgow show this up for the crap that it is. Just like England and Wales working class solidarity has suffered defeats in Scotland and the values of compassion, equality and looking out for each other will come not from the state, decked in tartan or not, but from the working class itself.
It might be objected that the attitudes of Scotland are those of a nation while similar attitudes in the three English regions are only of a part of England. However to privilege the national breakdown of social attitudes is to accept privileging the interests of the national unit over those of class. It presupposes what it has to prove – the overwhelming salience of national division – and begs the question in the assertion that only by itself can the Scottish working class move forward. It ignores the much larger potential for working class unity – the 5 million Scots and the fifteen million in northern England together.
For socialists the unity of the working class within the 20 million is infinitely more important than the unity of all classes within the 5 million.
It can be argued that even if the basic nature of society is hardly very different in Scotland from the rest of the UK and social attitudes not very different either, and more or less the same as northern England, that still politically Scotland has proven more progressive and more left wing. Since independence is not just for Christmas but for keeps any such political differences must be pretty fundamental and long-lived. Does the political history of Scotland demonstrate such fundamental and more or less permanent differences?
To be continued
[i] It is interesting to note some of the nationalist comments on this paper which state tha it is not their claim that Scotland is different but that it can be different through independence that matters. What they ignore is the nationalist claim that the latter is possible because of the former.