August should make us think more about solidarity

Professor TREVOR DAVIES prescribes openness, equality and democracy as the cure for what ails Scotland


It should have been the holiday “silly season”.  Instead it’s been a turbulent month of August.

Looting in English cities. The inevitable cranking up of the global financial crisis. The phone hacking scandal. Income for the UK’s richest 10 per cent going up. Inflation and unemployment for the rest of us going up. The famine in the Horn of Africa. And the sick joke from Barclay’s Bob “£6m bonus” Diamond urging the government to fully pursue its austerity programme, from which he will be immune.

So what are the lessons of August for left and progressive politics?  They should make us think more about the old Labour idea of solidarity and bring it to the forefront of today’s debate on what our governing purpose should be. Ed Miliband has been doing this and so should all of us.

The breakdown of solidarity of the last 30 years informs many of this month’s headlines. The young looters have no sense that our society will provide a future that includes them in even the most basic way. Most young people have lost the expectation that their lives will be in any sense an improvement on their parents’. Murdoch journalists saw no need for the laws and norms of society to apply to them. The super-rich exclude themselves from the society the rest of us inhabit – private schools, gated homes, tax-avoidance schemes, private transport. Corporations buy up land in poor Africa to feed the richer parts of the world.

Yet once our sense of democracy and solidarity was strong. Nye Bevan was able to create a taxpayer-financed National Health Service because of a widely shared sense of social solidarity that said access to health care should not depend on a person’s ability to pay, that falling ill was a risk we should share, not place on the backs of individuals.  If we tried to found the NHS today, would we be able to? Or would the vested interests prove just too powerful, as they do daily in America?

How do we re-invent the idea of solidarity and a common civic purpose for today? How do we articulate and implement the politics of the common good?

In the economy, one thing that solidarity means is greater equality. Clearly being relaxed about the super-rich is no longer an option. Labour’s years in government saw the stabilisation of the inequality that had exploded during  the ’80s and ’90s, through improvements for the lowest paid and pensioners. But not enough was done to halt the runaway rewards at the top. That wasn’t the cause of this month’s headlines – but it helped stoke the fire.

Greater equality requires action through taxation, legislation and institutional reform. We should tax wealth as well as, even instead of, income. This would remove many tax avoidance schemes the rich and, through land value taxation, provide an equitable replacement for the council tax. Individual tax returns should be available to public scrutiny, as they are in Sweden, as evidence of  your commitment to the society you live in. Tax evasion should result in disqualification as a company director and from receiving any add-ons to the basic state pension; benefit fraud in disqualification for tax credits or housing points. All companies should be required to publish their full spectrum of salaries and rewards as a precursor to legal limitation of the ratio between top and bottom. Regulation for the common good must be strengthened on corporations, especially banks, including the profit repatriation practices of foreign-owned companies. Workers’ representatives must be given a seat on company boards, as in Germany, to encourage long term investment and prevent profit-mining by directors and executives. Trades unions must be allowed to extend their scope, power and democratic credentials.

In our broader society, solidarity grows through greater commonality in the institutions we inhabit and the services we use. Private schools should lose their charitable status and have a cap on the fees they can charge, to break down the barriers around the super-rich. State schools should be based in the co-operative principle, bringing power to teachers, parents and communities, with less influence for parents who choose a non-neighbourhood school. Resources for schools should be allocated in inverse proportion to the wealth of their neighbourhood. The powers of audit for public services – health, social care, justice, environment – should be placed with the service users in the local community, working with councils and audit professionals. Dysfunctional families and individuals who assault their communities, as bankers or as looters, should be required to undertake intensive rehabilitation. Planning policies should be realigned to support local business and restrain externally-based monopolies, especially retail monopolies. Development land should pass through the ownership of the local authority, as is common throughout Europe. Equalities thinking must move beyond gender, disability, race, etc to include future generations, to re-invigorate the sustainability cause.

For the constitutional debate, solidarity requires us to value the unity of governance in these islands. We are a family of nations and our long solidarity has been of value to each one of us, helping out when help is needed, most recently in the banking crisis. All our nations are strong in themselves and any one of us could walk away from the others, set off by ourselves. But we won’t because we rely on each other, in good times and bad.

Everything that happens in these islands affects each of us to some extent. Devolution is a settlement which strengthens that solidarity because it gives the small an equal voice alongside the big. Solidarity also requires us to re-balance the constitutional relationships between the Scottish state and local communities and their elected councils. The centralising processes of the SNP governments (for example, removing the powers to set local taxation and removing local control of the police) will slowly strengthen the powers of the political and professional elites, separating rather than uniting.

All that we do should be about uniting.

Trevor Davies is an honorary professor of urban studies at the University of Glasgow and a former Labour councillor in Edinburgh.

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3 thoughts on “August should make us think more about solidarity

  1. I thought the SNP wanted local taxation via Fiscal Autonomy rather than the Treasury controlling all the money and spending it on the old school tie.

  2. Umm! solidarity is that not another way of saying ‘we are all in it together’

    Nye Bevan a great old socialist but would he have been welcome in the ‘new labour’ party

  3. Note to Admin
    I am pretty sure you will not post this comment, the fate of other contributions made on other articles.Don’t really care. Your loss. A bit of challenge might get some of those numb brain cells working. You and or the writer getting the feedback is enough, from my viewpoint)

    I remember vividly how the Left, from 1950s systematically demolished the old, stable society ‘solidarity’ the writer now hearkens back to, so nostalgically, via permissiveness, abusive unions, dependency creation, soft touch social policies etc. Makes ironic reading. So what bits of ‘undoing the damage’ need embodiment in policy?

    Permissiveness, lowering standards and expectations; over-indulgent protectiveness of a selected slice of the community labelled ‘disadvantaged’ – read shiftless, idle, criminal, social misfits and ferals supposed by those with a misplaced sense of fairness to be in need of ‘respect, involvement, participation, support, resourcing, etc’ Incidentally spawning myriads of nice relatively well paid ego-boosting jobs in the ‘caring’ dependency creation and maintenance services. Coupled with neglect of the genuinely hardworking honest self reliant and self respecting part of the working class. You reap what your softy-Leftist predecessors sowed.

    Solidarity – of whom, for what, to whose benefit?
    The only suggested answer is that the primary value is to highlight is the UK ‘unity’. The ‘family of nations” One in which the ‘parents’ (Labour Tories) crowd all the wealth and benefits into SE England and neglect, asset-strip, denigrate and abuse the ‘children’ in the rest of the ever-so-unequal ‘dysfunctional ‘family’ You have got rocks in your head if you think that one will sell. Besides the SNP have picked up Labour’s neglected shirt, in terms of advancing national solidarity for the benefit of the Scottish civic community. “Reliance on each other in good times and bad” does NOT have to come at the cost of Scottish subjugation to a damaging incorporation in a SE obsessed British state. Exaggerated fear of change, dressed as principle, does not convince.

    Otherwise, a real mixed bag of suggestions. Some good and nominally proven policies (in the context of other countries for example) dusted off and re-presented eg. Union reps on boards. But no consideration of cultural differences. Eg responsible sober German Unions vs some ‘What’s in it for me, I’m alright Jack’ wrecker Unionist/unionists in Scotland/UK No visible attention to current realities of the shift to a de-industrialised, decentralised, mainly small enterprise, de-unionised economy??? What will stop companies from structuring units to be below the threshold for inclusion in likely enforcement rules, for example? How will one token worker unionist director stop tax-mining, profiteering etc? What powers will they have to stop anything? Sounds like superficial idealistic naivety.
    Maybe realities are addressed in article 2? British society is broken and nothing but a Scottish civic revival in Scotland for Scotland will sort at least that one part of the mess. if England then follows suit then that is their choice.

    Labour’s strategic mistake was to swing from badly applied, token socialism, namely misplaced ‘killing by kindness’ dependency creation ‘solidarity’ policies of Old Labour (typified by featherbedding Unions, over-power Union leaders pursuing narrow sectional interests,cynically inefficient moribund nationalised industries,- to equally badly applied reagonomic capitalism in the form of damaging Blairite “no solidarity with anyone but Labour insiders” (greed is good/profit is king/ let the market decide/trickle down wealth creation -which never trickled/kowtow to the banks/ etc. etc. etc) for the record, the article glosses over the reality of increase in wealth inequalities under Labour government.

    Now Labour is in no-mans-land, stuck with false choice of abandoning Blairite polices – but with no credibility of returning to former misdefined ‘socialism’. The choice is “Do you prefer to be fried, or boiled?” Back to the past with socialist solidarity – with the wrong subset of population. Or more imitation ‘more-tory-than-the-tories’ capitalism.

    It would take a moral internal revolution to wrest the focus away from the self-indulgent ‘trendy causes’ obsessed middle class activists to get back to a focus on the real working class and the decent ordinary members of society and their needs, wants and wishes; instead of over-focus on the aberrant minorities and colluding and conniving at their support and maintenance. And yes, one can be still be compassionate to the genuine people in hard times, whilst redressing that balance.

    The problem is exacerbated by the inherent over-judgmental black-or-white-only thinking prevalent in Labour thinking and attitudes. This leads to the stupidities for example, of “If it is from the SNP it is EVIL” cul de sacs that have led to Labour in Scotland trapping themselves into so many no-win policy positions. Can’t think beyond Either-Or logic. No shades of grey and no systems thinking. Which is why Labour is baffled by and intensely angry that the SNP is the radical reformer that Labour sought to be – and failed to achieve. I keep hearing a desire to be an elite – knowing better than the population what their ‘true’ interest and needs are. Hence the delusional labelling of SNP policies as ‘popuist’ instead of the reality – aligned with common needs of the people and therefore genuinely popular. Labour needs to re-find alignment with the main population and stop being clever, clever, elitist theorists.

    Some genuinely interesting policies – worthy of investigation and or adoption are included. Land value taxation, re-regulation of the banks, progressive diminishing of middle class welfare schemes, etc

    Some are (very) superficiality innovative and appealing, for all of two seconds, before serious thought kicks in. The flaws are not in WHAT is advocated but in HOW they would have be implemented. Implied is crude, harsh, state intervention in individual lives and human rights abuses. This I find very worrying.

    Crack down on tax evasion. Sounds good. All for it, BUT “One persons’ tax evasion is someone else’s legal tax minimisation” So who judges; and how do you enforce without resort to arbitrary coercion, bloated bureaucracy, mass state interference with the individual, or totalitarian methods? How do you stop this being more oppression of the honest citizen who makes a mistake – while the rich fat cats lawyer their way to more riches? Inadvertently spawning a new vulture industry of tax lawyers, endless costly appeals – and a new wave of ‘human rights for tax dodgers’ new-age bleeding heart professionals etc? The author does not seem to be even dimly aware of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

    “Dysfunctional families and individuals who assault their communities, as bankers or as looters, should be required to undertake intensive rehabilitation.”
    All in together eh? Should be fun! Sell me tickets to round one please! So where are these concentration, sorry ‘re-education’, brainwashing, sorry, rehabilitation facilities to be located – the Western Isles, with a change of harris tweed underwear once a month, with hut 5? The flippancy is to highlight the deficiency of thought. In all seriousness, if the underlying totalitarian mindset is indicative of core Labour values; then this is seriously sick thinking.

    Certainly not my idea of how to achieve common civic purpose and common good. So overall, this a set of featherweight ‘good idea at the time’ policies; but no practicality of thought as to embodiment in legislation and administration. Sounds like a re-run of past Labour governments/ council decisions. Trams spring to mind.

    Suggestion for you on “Equalities thinking must move… etc. Instead of pursuing a totally unachievable false goal of “equality” How about shifting the concept to “equity” Implied is that contexts vary and a rough equity across different contexts IS at least reasonably achievable. Whereas trying vainly for ‘equality’ usually results in levelling down to the lowest common denominator, with damage to nearly everyone. As proven by Labour’s long list of policy disasters, from nationalised industries, soulless housing estates, dependency creation, etc etc.

    Overall, this starter for ten badly needs upgraded and built upon, rapidly, to something more solid and worth working up as a set of policies.

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