Book Review

Gregor Gall (ed.) A New Scotland: Building an Equal, Fair and Sustainable Society, Pluto, £14.99, 9780745345062, pp352

Reviewed by Matthew Crighton.

I both applaud and am deeply disappointed by this book. As a collection of pieces on the main issues regarding inequalities in Scotland, it has clear analysis and prescriptions from a constellation of excellent authors. As Roz Foyer says in her Foreword, it is a must-read for anyone interested in the steps needed to shift Scotland to a fairer and more socially just society.

But the New Scotland envisaged here won’t be a sustainable one, at least not without a lot of additional work and thought. The inclusion of a ‘Key Issues’ chapter on climate justice, good though it is, does not make the book’s content sustainable. This is for two reasons. First, sustainability is about a lot more than climate change. And, second, the statement in the climate justice chapter that ‘climate change is the greatest existential threat to society’ is not followed through into the rest of the book. With the exception of passing references in the chapters on housing, transport and wealth, there is hardly a mention of climate change, nor specifically of climate justice.

This is a weird disconnect. Every one of the issues dealt with in this book will likely be made worse by climate change and its consequences. Indeed, the entire project of social justice and socialism is threatened if climate catastrophe happens. Conversely, the struggles to create solutions to climate change create enormous opportunities for making progress against social injustices. However, in a neo-liberal state, climate policy will be implemented in ways which impose new costs on working people unless we are vigilant and united.

Building the power to achieve progress on social justice will need broad alliances, notably with the growing climate justice movement. Yet there is no consideration of the climate movement in the book. Written in the year in which COP26 brought the largest working-class mobilisation in Scotland in decades, the oversight seems more than careless.

Why then include sustainability in the title? This seems to be the same pattern with which we are familiar from the Scottish Government, where the rhetoric about climate emergency and alleged ‘world leading’ responses is scattered liberally in the introductions and visions of many a document but not followed through in the delivery sections.

It’s not as if there is nowhere to go for arguments and actions linking social justice and climate change. They are there for the taking from the Just Transition Partnership, from the STUC, which framed its industrial debates at Congress this year around just transition, and from the comprehensive policies set out in Common Weal’s ‘Our Common Home Plan’.

These are sources for the easy-to-make linkages between climate action and social justice around housing, transport, energy, industrial policy, economic strategy, community development, fair work, equalities. The list goes on and there is not space to spell them out here. Some thought needs to be given to understand these omissions and the reasons why some sections of the left still don’t accept that climate justice and sustainability have to be integrated into any programme for social justice.

Perhaps, to understand this we have to move from climate change, which is mentioned as a key issue but without any follow-through, to the other environmental issues which are the core of sustainability. These get no attention in this book despite its title. As well as a climate emergency we are facing a nature (or ‘biodiversity’) crisis and we are exceeding many of our planetary limits (including soil, ocean acidification, freshwater withdrawals – see Doughnut Economics). As The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) points, out, we are taking resources as if we have three planets and we need to aim for One Planet Prosperity.

At the incremental level, there are plenty of straightforward and socially-just measures to alleviate environmental destruction. However, at the system level, these sustainability issues do raise questions about consumption, growth, wellbeing and economic management which are too challenging to the mindsets of both the economic mainstream and to parts of the socialist movement.

Actually, we must accept that some of them are not easy for anyone! However, the central point for socialists is that they require putting social goals, seen only as externalities by mainstream economics, at the very centre of the management of the economy – to make it achieve opposite outcomes from those which would arise without intervention. Whether top-down or bottom-up, whether social-democratic or revolutionary, the state and public interventions are essential. (These are, of course, insights which the environmental movement as a whole has yet to embrace).

These are the truths behind the slogan which it is so inspiring to hear at climate justice demonstrations: ‘One struggle, one fight – climate justice, workers rights!’. It would take another book to explore all this – now there’s an idea! – but at the core is that the climate emergency provides some of the strongest arguments for system change.

All this is missed. Even easy stuff like Green New Deal, just transition, circular economy, as well as work being done on related questions about economic strategy and role of finance. As is the work on these issues of Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland, Common Weal and Friends of the Earth Scotland.

However, to return to the many positive features of this book. There has to be a flow of ideas, insights and passions between the labour and social justice movements and environmentalists. The chapters of this book provide a great starting point on social justice issues but which must integrated into Scotland’s plans for just transition and climate justice. Let the two-way learning continue and broaden!

Matthew Crighton was a NALGO and UNISON union activist, working in local economic development and inclusion before becoming a climate change campaigner

  • There will be a short response to this review in the next issue of Scottish Left Review.