Agenda 15 – Reactions

We wrote to a range of the people who will have the power to implement the proposals put forward in Agenda 15 to ask for their reactions. We wrote to leader of all the centre and left-of-centre political parties in the Scottish Parliament. We wrote to an current MSP in each of the parties. And we also wrote to a candidate at the coming election in each of the parties but who has not been an MSP. We also got a number of responses from readers. The following is what we have received.

Alex Salmond, First Minister
Devolution as we know it is over, the mission of building a better society has begun. The truth is we need a national purpose, a common goal to make Scotland a remarkable and fulfilling place in which to live. If Labour made the mistake of thinking that devolution alone would fix things, then perhaps I have talked of independence without explaining sufficiently what I mean. In future, I may refer to the referendum I seek as a jobs referendum; when I say I want more powers, I want powers to create and protect jobs. When I speak of financial responsibility, I mean the responsibility to grow the economy and defend the services that we as a society want.

This is the defining issue of the moment – how do we protect our people and jobs? It seems to me the choice is straightforward. Either we have the powers to look after all the people of Scotland, or we continue adrift on the waters of the ConDem cuts storm. Where we can act, we have done so for the benefit of all the people of Scotland. We will not sell Scottish Water, but develop it into a dynamic agency managing a vital asset. We have fostered a boom in renewable energy development, aiming to meet all our energy needs from green sources by 2025. We have set the world’s toughest climate change targets. We have done all this to protect the inheritance of our children, to build a green economy for the future and to meet our international obligations.

We have acted to defend the least advantaged in our society. By freezing council tax, lifting bridge tolls, and ending prescription charges we have reduced the burden on households around the country. Protecting the health budget, employing more hospital cleaners and reducing layers of management ensure we can protect the NHS. Putting 1,000 more officers on the beat, while seeking a cut in back office duplication, means communities can stay safe even as Scotland’s budget is cut by Westminster. These are good steps, as we move forward to a fair society.

My vision is to build a better Scotland using the economic powers and financial responsibility that come with independence. The age of confusing a national parliament with a national purpose are over – the one exists to deliver the other, which is why Scotland needs independence. Now is the time to work towards that fair society.

Richard Leonard, Prospective Labour Party candidate, Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley
Let’s get some points of significant disagreement out of the way. I am not in that new consensus which believes “the arguments for full independence seem strong to anyone who has been observing closely what being part of the British state really involves”. I have been observing, but I reach quite a different conclusion. The political choices we face need to be guided more by principle than geography, more by a redistribution of power from those who happen to own the wealth to those who by their endeavour create it. In my eyes the last few years have shown that the democratic deficit we need to address above all others is in our economic rather than our political system. Similarly I am far from convinced that we are living in a “post-religious…post-industrial…post-imperial society”. Admittedly some of their manifestations are in an altered state but take it from me as a union organiser, corporate imperialism in industrial Scotland is a daily experience for millions of our citizens as producers as well as consumers. But that’s also why much of the thinking behind Agenda 15 is right. The voice of big business is heard all too loudly in the corridors of power and needs to be regulated. Those most responsible for the banking crisis are getting away with it whilst those who are in no way responsible for it are being asked to pay the price.

And so we need a radical agenda not despite the scale of the crisis we face but precisely because of it. We have income inequality, but we have power inequality too. Most notably the continued marginalisation of women, socially and economically has got to be part of Agenda 15. So pursuing a Living Wage, equal pay and wage convergence through public procurement and ending the public sector bonus culture would be a marked change in the right direction. But we need to look at the income of those out of work, not least, the dignity of those in retirement, too. And we need to promote an agenda of wider economic democracy which includes though is not limited to the longstanding but too often neglected labour movement goal of industrial democracy.

Agenda 15’s challenge to the fake diversity generated by the advertising and marketing machine is right. But this shortage of real choice is much deeper and the concentration of power much greater. Remember the only big Scottish registered companies to emerge over the last thirty years are either privatised utilities like Scottish & Southern Energy and the now overseas owned Scottish Power or corporations which have benefited from privatisation like Stagecoach and the FirstGroup. There is a massive investment gap in the Scottish economy, and much that could be done by directing the multi-billion pound Pension and insurance funds that we own but fail to control, as well as radically reforming and bolstering the Scottish Investment Bank and giving new powers to Co-operative Development Scotland.

Much is made quite correctly of the power and quality of the media in Agenda 15, the failings of the civil service and the monopoly power of big business: in our National Health Service as well as in the wider economy, but what about the power of the land-owning classes? There is much unfinished business on land reform, because ownership means power. It matters, and if we are to see transformational social and economic change our land must be part of it.

Bill Wilson, SNP MSP
I recall reading that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries many young English women destroyed their health trying to reduce the diameter of their waists to that of the Duchess of Rutland’s, said to be equivalent to one and a half oranges.Their strict diets and tight corsets made them prone to fainting and disinclined to go hill-walking. Meanwhile in China, the female victims of a bizarre male concept of feminine beauty tottered about on deformed feet and were not much into walking at all – never mind hill-walking. What we measure, in a large part, determines what we are.

Today growth is god:to a greater or lesser degree, success is measured by growth in GDP.We compare our GDP to that of other nations, and if it is higher we are doing well, if lower then government policy is a failure.Why do we measure GDP?We seek full employment, we want to use the wealth to generate a more just society, we want better paid jobs, we want people to be happy…

The problem is that GDP measures none of these things.As pointed out in Agenda 15, GDP growth may be job-free. One Labour local authority in Scotland – North Ayrshire – used to advertise its region as an area for international investment on the strength of its internationally low wages; good wages and GDP growth are not linked.The trickle-down effect has long been discredited, and GDP growth may increase rather than decrease inequality.As for happiness, well, lots of things make us happy, but I have yet to hear anybody remark that their personal happiness is due to a recent increase in GDP! Worse, GDP does not differentiate between positive, and neutral or harmful increases in economic activity.Spending on the NHS is considered a good thing, but in a more equal society we would not have to spend so much on health.Is that not a better thing?

Thatcher once informed us that “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”.Ownership of a car was a mark of success; a new car shows that your really are succeeding. But how about an alternative view?Buying a new car means your old car has finally packed in – was no longer up to the job.Are you not then a failure; you could not keep your car on the road?Or… buying a new car means that you do not care about the environment, about anybody but yourself, is that not a social failure on your part?Now I am not suggesting that one should read my last few lines literally, but imagine the kind of society we might live in if the latter view, and not the former, was the more common?

If we use an indicator – new car or GDP – as a measure of success then it follows logically, inevitably, that we willseek to maximise our score in that measurement.Nobody (least of all politicians) wants to be seen to fail.If we want less inequality, greater happiness, or whatever, then we had better make sure that that is what we measure, because what you measure is what you get.

Why, given the range of excellent points raised in Agenda 15, have I concentrated on one, GDP, alone?Well, aside from limited space, measurement is central to who we are, how we perceive ourselves, success or failure.GDP turns our world upside down:it seems that people exist to serve our economy.But surely our economy exists to serve our people? That is why in my last few months as an MSP I am carrying out a survey of the views of French and Scottish NGOs on GDP.If you have something to say, I would be delighted to hear it.

Maggie Chapman, number three on the Lothians list for the Scottish Green Party
Agenda 15 is exactly the sort of visionary thinking that devolution should have prompted. It is sad that the quality of debate has never really come to encompass the sort of big thinking that the Scottish Left Review is to be commended for. Reading the set of principles and policies set out in Agenda 15 I was left struggling to disagree. Of course there are areas where Greens would go further – much more on an economic strategy based on the twin aims of creating jobs and tackling climate change, for instance. There are some areas which Agenda 15 glosses over. The most important is radical devolution of powers. It’s not enough to just strengthen the powers of the Scottish Parliament. We must strengthen the say communities have over their own lives.

And it’s here that I’d like to make my own contribution to this Agenda. The evidence points to disempowerment and alienation being a serious factor in undermining wellbeing. Late capitalism seeks to answer this by giving consumer choice. Greens believe that giving people more power to work together for better communities and a better world is the solution to alienation. Agenda 15 would benefit from some material proposals on how communities could be more empowered, and how that would create social capital and increased well-being. I suggest an extension of the right to buy legislation to urban areas, allowing communities to take the first option on any asset on the market and a substantial endowment for the voluntary sector and social enterprises of the order of £1bn to be managed by a consortium of voluntary sector organisations.

There is a need to rework the individual’s relationship with the state, and while Agenda 15 is strong on this it doesn’t mention co-production. This is a way of designing and delivering services that puts the individual and communities at the heart of both defining the service and helping to deliver it. The municipal monopoly on public services cannot be seen as an untrammelled good. Often self help and mutual aid approaches can help deliver better, more effective services that will be treasured by their users. This might include helping older people learn maintenance skills so they’re not dependent on their landlord. Or it could mean having communities design and deliver waste reduction plans that create resources such as compost and recyclable metals. Perhaps it is most appropriate in design and delivery of care, where putting the service user at the heart of the service delivers better health and well being. Both the New Economics Foundation and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts have interesting work on this process.

Agenda 15 gives an effective framework for supporting a progressive Scotland. It is to be commended for that. While there are some areas that I’d develop, it delivers the sort of exciting thinking that is so desperately needed. We must make a better nation, rather than capitulating to a neoliberal cuts agenda.

Joan McAlpine, Scottish National Party candidate for the South of Scotland region
I welcome Scottish Left Review’s Agenda 15 as an important contribution to the debate on how Scotland can become a fairer country. I particularly welcome the informative piece you ran on the forces behind the campaign to privatise Scottish Water. I am very proud to be representing a party in 2011 that has spelled out clearly that it will not privatise Scottish Water, and intends to develop this valuable resource for all the people of Scotland and, in future, for global humanitarian purposes. Since the publication of Agenda 15, the SNP government has also set more ambitious climate change targets and promised to introduce free prescriptions. Universal benefits such as free medicine are the easiest way of creating an equitable society in which everybody has a stake.

They are also popular – the NHS is a universal benefit. Such benefits, however, must be balanced and paid for through a progressive taxation system. Under the current devolution settlement, Scotland has no control over the whole taxation system. If we did – either by means of full fiscal power or with independence – we would have access to the income that has seen Scotland, according to official figures, run a surplus even after our share of the banking bail out. Independence would allow Scottish politicians, if they choose, to regulate banks and place a fairer levy on greed. With access to our oil revenues and other forms of corporate taxation, alcohol and tobacco duty and petrol taxes, we could tailor a system better suited to Scottish conditions. It would allow us to develop renewables using our own wealth – and so create the kind of high skilled manufacturing jobs that will grow Scotland while also reducing our dependence on fossil fuel. Scotland is a rich country. To share that wealth we need to control it.

From some of our readers
We are in the wake of the worst financial crisis for a century, we have witnessed a near meltdown of the financial markets and the ensuing chaos and turmoil, resulting in savage cuts in the public and private sectors. Yet amongst this the very rich are no worse off and the very poor certainly no better. The Hutton Review of Fair Pay in the Public Sector is looking in the wrong place for answers. Excessive salaries in the public sector are a direct result of market influences in the spilling over into the public sector. Despite a 24 per cent fall in shares, the boardroom pay of the top 100 companies in the UK has increased by 23 per cent. Top executive pay of over £1 million is still on the cards at the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds Banking Group and many others.

Wage inequality is destructive and destabilising to our society, allowing the rich to buy privilege, education and health. Wage inequality divides communities and traps those at the bottom on low wages and benefits. The idea of a National Maximum Wage is not new – but it is an idea whose time has come. The creation of a High Pay Commission to conduct detailed research, hear evidence and look at alternatives such as linking the maximum wage in a company to a multiple of the lowest wage. Or perhaps setting a maximum wage at 10 or 20 times the UK average wage, would be a first step in discussing wage inequality and how to resolve it. We need to develop solutions that structurally tackle the inequality in income. We will be told to “Let the market decide” – but as we have seen – how wrong the markets can be.

Linda Somerville
My response to Agenda 15 is not about commenting on the ideas and proposals as such. I agree with many of them and think that quibbling about this point or that would miss a more fundamental one which is how do we go about operationalising and mobilising for them? The first step must be the wider public articulation of the platform or vision contained therein. The second step is identifying, creating and stimulating the social forces and social/political processes by which people could campaign to achieve the aims and goals. Has the Scottish Parliament got any mileage here, either in terms of its existing powers or the likely compostion after 2011? There have been too many examples in the past of great ideas and initiatives that ended up going precisely nowhere. The instigators were convinced that the ideas were great – and sure they have to be – but that is less than half the equation of social change which the agenda discusses. Ironically, is there anything we can learn – positively and negatively- from the take over of society and the state by neo-liberal forces?’

Gregor Gall
Agenda 15 is like a breath of fresh air, an agenda where ideas have room to breathe. In keeping with some of the more important contributions from the left in recent years, it eschews the language of lofty destinations and instead promotes the first steps of a pathway towards the transformation of Scotland. This is what is genuinely radical about Agenda 15. It starts from where we are and challenges us to address the question: why aren’t we doing this now? It acknowledges that the possibilities for the transformation of Scotland would be so much greater with independence while recognising that, in spite of all the constraints of Britishness, we can at least make a start. Many of the ideas here should be promoted to the top of the national agenda – greater convergence of wealth and life chances, social provisioning, the re-design of job strategies, a broader and deeper cooperative movement, more creative and socially useful forms of housing tenure, freedom of knowledge and so on.

Agenda 15 is also a rallying call for the democratisation of Scotland. Informing its thinking is a voice that will become louder and louder as the effects of the damaging policies of the dead hand of Westminster are increasingly felt in Scotland, a voice for economic democracy. Agenda 15 captures the foundational aims of the left – how can we start to create a society that expands the capabilities of all individuals and allows them to live better lives? Everyone, whatever their location on the spectrum of the Scottish left, should not only endorse Agenda 15 but ask themselves the question: what can I do to contribute to the realisation of this agenda? As a first step, we could establish a more formal network of the “incredibles”. Where do I sign?

Donald Adamson
Issue 60 of the SLR raises a number of important issues for Scotland’s future as well as paying tribute to one of the greatest Scots most of us every had the privilege to meet. I will approach this question of Scotland’s future from a Marxist perspective as Jimmy would have done, although Jimmy would have been able to explain his thoughts much more effectively than I can. We need to start from the base, from the economic structure in Scotland to-day for any political or social changes in Scotland tomorrow will need to come from Scotland’s economic base tomorrow. The first obvious thing to recognise is that the Scottish Government has very limited power to effect, far less control, the Scottish economy. This leaves us on the left with a very stark and immediate choice. We either have to decide to ignore the Scottish Parliament as irrelevant and concentrate on winning over the “British” public to establish socialism in the UK Parliament; or more realistically we need to fight for real economic power for the Scottish Government and win over the Scottish people to a “left” agenda.It does not take a lot of thought to recognise as Jimmy did, and I do that the latter is the more obtainable objective.

If the strong left base, which still exists within the Labour Party, even although it has had no political voice for two decades, were to be mobilised in real opposition to the ConDem Government cuts, and to take head-on the Labour Party Leadership in Scotland which would attempt to divert this, this would provide either a shift in the Labour Party in Scotland’s position, or more likely a division in the Labour Party in Scotland. However even a divided Labour Party in Scotland, would be likely to have a powerful left section which could be organised into a powerful force in the Scottish Parliament after the May election. A force strong enough to do a deal with the SNP for a share in Government.

The immediate duty of such a Government would be to push forward the Salmond concept of Scotland “growing its way” out of recession with a Keynesian economic strategy which would work fine while there is such unemployed resources available and natural resources to fund it. Of course such a policy would not last for ever, and the left would need to assert more direct socialist policies after we reached a full employment economy, but such problems would be easier to deal with and are some years away. This it seems to me is the obvious way forward for Scots on the left, any approach which repeats the mistakes of the past will divide the left in Scotland and play into the hands of the ConDem Government who will not be concerned about the Scots supporting a right-wing unionist Labour Party which they will easily handle.

Andy Anderson
I spent most of my working life in London and overseas, and in only a few years back in Scotland I am struck by the institutional stasis and graft which remains in this country. Perhaps the most salient point of all in Issue number 60 was “In the upside-down world of government, credibility has come to mean either obedience or convenience”. From the reports of chief officers retiring from posts to come back as very high paid consultants, through the inert and sclerotic bureaucracies of the quangos like Transport Scotland who cannot even manage elementary processes such as not releasing tranches of money to contractors (on the Edinburgh trams) before their actual ‘milestones’ are met, to the political manoeuvrings across the unitary local authorities – just to keep things as they are – there is something very rotten, self-servingly complacent, in Scottish political and public life.

I am heartened by the tone of Agenda 15, and subscribe to the principles you set out. However in relation to the democratic deficit, and to begin to redress some of the power imbalance against ordinary people at the mainly lived level, why is there not a call for empowering parishes and communities again? Local authorities are already talking about further ‘economies of scale’ to meet, or rather yield to, the new fiscal agenda, when in fact they act remotely from people as it is, and community councils are hopeless tokenism without any actual powers, mere figleaves of consultation to help introduce ‘nicer cuts’. Agenda 15 is a start, but more actual power to the people in it would widen it to ordinary folk.