Gerry Mooney, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University in Scotland, Edinburgh
The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum reminded us – as if we needed reminding – that poverty, disadvantage and inequality are significant factors shaping contemporary Scotland and much of Scottish society. In the early hours of Friday, September 19, as the results from across the country began to flood in, it was already evident that poverty and affluence were key factors that influenced the vote. It is now widely recognised that the poorer and more disadvantaged the locality – the more likely it was to vote YES – and of course the converse is the same for those areas that are more affluent.
In important ways, the Independence debate was not just about conflicting constitutional futures but was more about the kind of society Scotland could become. Here issues of disadvantage, poverty, inequality and equality were central and the overall campaign by supporters of Scottish Independence was fought on a terrain that was not nationalist in any real sense – but revolved around what might be termed, very broadly, questions of ‘social justice’.
That the entire independence debate was repeatedly drawn to issues of social justice and injustice, and to the impacts of Tory austerity and neoliberalism, allowed those who are interested in challenging these policies and addressing poverty to debate the way forward. New organisations and movements were formed, new ideas developed and a new commitment to rebuilding Scottish society energised and politicised large sections of the population as never before.
The degree of poverty and disadvantage in Scotland today shows the extent to which our society is scarred by the impact of the policy approaches of successive governments and rising levels of inequality. Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond, shows in very clear terms the ‘headline’ poverty statistics that:
- 870,000 people in Scotland still live in poverty (17% of the population).
- 200,000 children in Scotland still live in poverty (20% of all children).
- Poverty in Scotland is significantly higher than in many other European countries
- Poverty exists across Scotland. Nearly all local authorities in Scotland have council wards where over 20% of their children live in poverty.
The picture for the period ahead points to an increase in poverty with austerity measures already in place beginning to bite. By 2020 it is estimated that an additional 100,000 children in Scotland will be living in poverty.
There are several reasons for this bleak picture. The Prime Minister’s claim that a ‘new age of austerity’ was required, meaning large scale cuts in public expenditure, was accompanied by a new phase of what is euphemistically termed ‘welfare reform’. Austerity was never going to be ‘fair’ in its impact – nor was it intended to be. It was a political project, a class project to redistribute wealth and income to those who are privileged. It was a clear strategy to reduce fiscal deficit by slashing public spending and services, and to cut pensions and other welfare benefits. These cuts impact most adversely on those who are already among the most disadvantaged in society. But it also an assault on the very social contract that was held by successive generations of people to be a core part of UK citizenship. Such cuts are also about restoring conditions for profit and wealth accumulation, which is nothing other than the transfer of wealth and power into ever fewer hands.
UK Government welfare reforms have been criticised by the Scottish Government as out of step not only with the wishes of voters in Scotland but also as seriously at odds with ‘Scottish values’. Much of this is related to other claims that Scottish voters and the wider public in Scotland is in some way less hostile to people in receipt of benefit, that negative attitudes to welfare are more diluted in Scotland. Throughout the past 2 years, leading Scottish Ministers have repeatedly made forays into the welfare debate. The SNP have seized on UK Government welfare reforms to advance the case that only an Independent Scotland with a distinctive Scottish welfare state is true to the foundations of the post-war UK welfare state. This has also opened-up the terrain for a more progressive debate around poverty and how it should be tackled.
As was highlighted at the outset, the debate that emerged around Scottish Independence was a debate around the kind of society Scotland could be. That as part of this there was discussion over the future of Scotland’s welfare system brings into sharp focus the question of poverty and of inequality – but also wider issues of the kind of economy and society that would be necessary for the eradication of poverty. That this is leading to new thinking around new forms of welfare system is positive. However, the challenge is also to advance the issue of poverty in a way that is free of stigma and disrespect now. We cannot afford to wait for future constitutional arrangements – devolution more, devolution max or some form of federalism – to be rolled out before addressing poverty and inequality.
In the Independence debate the notion of ‘Common Weal’ as the basis of a distinctively Scottish welfare system rose to some prominence. In a series of papers published by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, proponents of the Common Weal have advocated a far reaching vision of Scotland as a fairer, progressive and more sustainable society. Looking to some of the fairest economic and social policies in the Nordic countries, it places an attack on entrenched inequality and wealth by a completely revamped taxation system that would enable better quality, well-funded public services. Social goals would drive economic development, not the pursuit of private profit. A new set of principles would underpin a Scottish welfare state, in the form of contract between people in Scotland delivered through the state. The Radical Independence Campaign further drew our attention to the sharp realities of a class divided Scotland, highlighting the huge inequalities in income and wealth that are also a feature of Scottish society and which are often overlooked. A major redistribution of income and wealth and an assault on vested interests and entrenched privilege it is argued is central to an effective anti-poverty policy.
Scotland is, despite myths of collectiveness and a Scottish ‘national interest’, a society marked by class divisions and inequalities. Not only does this manifest itself in the huge and wider levels of poverty but in the huge advantages that Scotland’s rich enjoy today and, in the SNP vision of an Independent but low tax and competitive Scotland, would continue to enjoy. The Independence Referendum debates have thrown-up the possibility of building a new Scotland, a socialist Scotland in which the vested interests, privilege and advantages of the affluent will be seriously challenged. A massive programme of redistribution and investment in social welfare, care and sustainable employment are crucial. Only through this will poverty and disadvantage be addressed once and for all.
Dr Gerry Mooney is co-editor of Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond, is published by the Child Poverty Action Group, 2014) and is available (together with a sample chapter) from: http://onlineservices.cpag.org.uk/shop/PSP14.