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.