Book Review

A Wealthier, Fairer Scotland: The Political Economy of Constitutional Change, ed. Michael Keating, Edinburgh University Press, £14.99 paperback, £75.00 hardback ISBN 9781474416436  

Reviewed by Robin Jones 

‘The true way to give the Scots more control over their future,’ wrote Margaret Thatcher in the Scotsman, is ‘to cut back what government spends and controls, leaving more freedom of choice for the people.’ Two days later, on 11 September, 1997, Scotland voted by the order of 3 to 1 in favour of a devolved parliament and what the former Prime Minister had described as ‘more political interference, regulation and taxation.’

Received wisdom has long been that voters north of the border view taxation and public spending more favourably than the rest of the UK. A Wealthier, Fairer Scotland, edited by Michael Keating, maintains that this may not actually be the case. True, levels of support for increasing taxation and spending are ‘at the core of the left-right division’ but, as Keating notes in the first chapter, ‘[s]urveys have consistently shown that on measures of support for redistribution, Scottish voters are only marginally to the left of England’. The perception of Scotland as a pro-taxation, pro-public spending society is a ‘long-standing myth,’ and the predispositions of the Scottish electorate may not, in fact, greatly differ from those of the rest of the UK. Indeed, Scottish attitudes may not be much at variance with those of people in the north of England at all; in this case it would be the south of England, not Scotland, that is ‘the outlier.’

If the popularity of social investment and preventive spending is a myth, it is a enduringly fashionable one and certainly one that has long played a part in Scottish political discourse. But egalitarianism need not drive the electorate for this to be the case. Keating notes that ‘[r]edistributive policies do not come about because individuals altruistically desire to give away some of their income and wealth to others. They happen within particular social and institutional contexts in which citizens see a connection between the common good and their own individual interest’. In other words, voters are happy to make sacrifices in return for increases in the ‘social wage,’ most often in the form of public services with direct benefit, such as the NHS and education. Of these sacrifices, the one felt most keenly felt by workers is probably tax, and it is appropriate that the devolution of tax powers to the Scottish government, and the possibilities this brings, form the backbone of this book.  

The broad aim of this collection of essays is, as Keating states, ‘to explore the scope that Scotland has to achieve the proclaimed goals of economic growth and a reduction of social inequalities through the use of its existing and new powers’. Those goals necessitate ‘a shift to social investment and prevention and a new positive-sum compromise.’ A particularly compelling example of such a compromise is given by Craig McAngus and Kirstein Rummery in the form of ‘supply-side childcare’, i.e. childcare provided by the state as opposed to the present ‘fragmented system’ in which parents have to ‘cobble together’ their own childcare arrangements. Support for supply-side childcare is, they maintain, support for women’s participation in the labour market and as such ‘has the potential to yield both long-term economic benefits and greater social equality.’

On this matter, the authors offer the familiar, and persuasive, example of the Nordic states, where childcare policy has long been a central component of welfare provision and has led to these states’ high scores in gender equality indexes. In contrast, 40% of Scottish local authorities reported ‘large gaps in (childcare) provision’ in 2013. Given that ‘over half of non-working mothers claim that they would engage in the labour market if they were able to gain access to affordable, high quality childcare,’ the negative contribution such gaps make to gender inequality in Scotland is clear.

But, as Keating and Liñeira later acknowledge, Nordic welfare provision requires Nordic levels of taxation: ‘[i]f Scotland wants a developed, social democratic, social investment welfare state it will have to pay for it.’ On the whole, the contributors to this collection of essays appear sanguine about the feasibility of this, for ‘[w]hile public attitudes to taxes and public spending matter, these are not immutable, and may be amenable to change in response to effective political leadership … [t]he greater devolution of income taxation therefore does provide an opportunity to make real choices over the type of society that the Scottish people want, and a higher tax and spend economy is likely to be a more equal one.’

For that equality to become a reality those choices will have to be made and those discussions will have to be had. As Keating notes in the first chapter: ‘[t]here has been extensive public discussion of which powers to devolve but much less about what future Scottish Governments should actually do with them.’ In publishing this book, the academics behind A Wealthier, Fairer Scotland have made a balanced, detailed contribution to the latter.

Robin Jones lives in Paris where he works as an English teacher. His fiction, articles and reviews have appeared in the Edinburgh Review, Gutter, Jacobin, the Dark Mountain Project and Huffington Post