Aye we can!

By Professor Mike Danson, Heriot Watt University.

We can’t afford to keep all these scroungers, layabouts, pensioners, … disabled and the rest in the manner to which they’ve been accustomed. Or can we?

Well it’s interesting that the levels of social security payments to those who are unemployed in the UK are appreciably lower than anywhere else in the north and west of Europe, compared with the average wage and what people were earning before losing their jobs. State pensions are similarly higher elsewhere in the Nordic countries, Germany, the Netherlands and our other near neighbours. We spend less on our welfare state that any of these competitors. Most of these countries are in the European Union, all are in the Single Market(s) with all its extra costs, apparently, and issues over migrant workers, restrictions on being competitive in a globalised economy.

These profligate neighbours also demand high taxes from their populations and businesses, and yet consistently are ranked by the CEOs of multinational enterprises as the best economies to locate their plants in the world. And, they haven’t been building up record deficits and debts, public and private; Britain has. Indeed, these small and large economies recovered quickly from the financial crisis, without attacking the living standards of the vulnerable and without undermining the sustainability of their businesses or societies.

How? Deregulation of markets, relaxing labour protection ad employment laws, privatisation of key sectors, selling off the family silver – nope, none of these. Nor destroying the power of trades unions, making workers take zero hours contracts, promoting flexible labour markets. So how? How come a low wage-low productivity-low investment economy of the UK is less competitive than the high wage-high productivity-high investment models of the Arc of Prosperity?

By building upon the social solidarity established over the decades – achieved after class struggle in times past, by accepting that workers on the shop floor – store, factory, office or construction yard – have talents, experience, skills and will apply these innovatively if they have a stake in their and their community’s futures, by having the highest rates of trade union membership in the world, the Nordic countries and Germany outperform the UK on all counts. Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Germany: the four innovation leaders of the European Union; the Nordic countries topping just about all global league tables for health, wealth and happiness; in the vanguard for gender equality, press freedom, equality.

These measures of a liberal and social democratic society are not possible because these countries are rich and powerful, rather they are fundamental to their individual successes. Each Nordic social model – of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – is based on degrees of inclusion and equity that are alien to the body politic presented by Westminster and the establishment bubble of the capital. Speaking to colleagues in those countries or addressing workshops in Iceland and the Faroe Islands recently, I was struck at how deep these norms and values go into their respective consciousnesses. Levels of poverty tolerated by the UK government, commentariat and media are incomprehensible there, and so the consensus and settled paradigm is that poverty is exceptional, the common weal is critical in determining the private and the social good.

Overwhelmingly land and other commons are held in community ownership, minimum wages are eschewed because collective bargaining is accepted as key to setting fair wages for all. The tax system is progressive overall but, more importantly, predistribution is stressed: wages are set well above poverty levels so that tax revenues are naturally high as incomes allow all to contribute. The social wage – incomes from all sources plus the benefits from public service provision – is affordable because the advantages of living in, contributing to and being a member of your society are recognised and the population are willing to pay the taxes required to deliver the benefits. Contrast this with the approach of the UK: first we bake the cake bigger then, after some have had their fill, most have been fed pie in the sky, a few crumbs may fall to those who are vulnerable, left behind, unable to compete.

There is a better way. Can we move along a different road, one that delivers equity, prosperity and freedom from want, homelessness and destitution? Can we adopt an inclusive society that privileges sustainability, solidarity and security over greed, exploitation, isolation and instability? Can we be more Nordic? Aye, we can.