Comment – new year but not new times

In time honoured fashion, we wish our readers, subscribers, contributors and supporters a heartfelt happy new year. But we also know that no mere well wishes will stop 2015 from becoming yet another annus horribilis for most of the populace as austerity and neo-liberalism continue to destroy lives, living standards and life chances. At the forthcoming Westminster general election, we face three different colours of austerity – blue (Tory), yellow (LibDem) and pink (Labour).

To stop another annus horribilis will take popular resistance and collective action based upon a radical left agenda. And nowhere more important a place for this to happen is over the issues of our public health. Consequently, the theme of this issue is the state of our health, most obviously centring upon our NHS.

The NHS is Scotland is approaching a critical juncture as a result of the merging of health and social care services due to legislation passed by the Parliament in 2014. Most welcome the ‘theory’ of merging of the services but many also question the ‘practice’ as a result of issues over the allocation of resources, clear lines of accountability and responsibility, and the conditions of care workers. Add to this is the introduction of ‘personalisation’ of care under the mantra of consumer or service user choice. Again, many welcome the ‘theory’ but many others also question the ‘practice’ as a result of issues over funding.

Our contributors reflect the full range of hopes and reservations involved in these issues. It is worth highlighting just a few of these. Paul Arkison highlights that too much time being spent on process and planning and not actual job of working directly with clients while Andrew Watterson et al. call for more publicity/resources/investigation into work place cancers and the more devolution of health and safety.

Finally, Chris Bartter argues that freedom of information could be extended without primary legislation while Dave Watson makes the same point concerning procurement – with both showing what the SNP government can do now with existing powers. It is to be hoped that this edition of Scottish Left Review can shed some light on the pros and cons and lead to some rounded betterment as a result.

Of course, the issues involved in defending the NHS cannot be separated from other issues. So we have five articles on the state of the left in Scotland and what it needs to do. The first on Scottish Labour prompts in this editorial comment congratulations to Neil Findlay and Katy Clark for putting up such a spirited fight and applying old principles to current challenges. It reminded me of the time when I was in the Labour Party nearly thirty years ago. Then, you could at least guarantee that you would hear the socialist case (even if it seldom won out).

‘To the victor the spoils’ is not exactly what Jim Murphy has been left with according to the clutch of polls on Labour’s prospects in Scotland. Remembering my student days (in which he was both President of NUS Scotland and NUS (UK)), I recall that he is a tough, hardened operator with a flair for populist opportunism when needs must. Consequently, I’d be rather less quick to write him off as the political suicide note for Scottish Labour that some have.

In all of this, we should not forget that the 13,000 odd submissions of ordinary citizens to the Smith Commission counted for not one jot. Announcing its recommendations, it was patently clear that what was proposed was that the outcome of last minute talks between the main political parties (including the SNP). So much for the (re)birth of democracy in Scotland in the light of the referendum campaign when many said Scotland can and will never be the same!

So it is not hard to understand why the STUC and the Unite, Unison and PCS unions expressed their considerable disappointment at this political fix. Don’t get too down heartened though – because whatever the main parties did or did not agree to, there’s still the final hoop of the forthcoming general election to be jumped through. No one can know the result of it but it’s a fair bet to presume that if the Tories do well then even the Smith Commission’s limited proposals will be watered down further – especially at the behest of backbench Tory MPs in southern England. So much for the solemn vow from the son of the manse!

The other big event of recent months that now tends to be overlooked is the first legislative programme announced by the new First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on 26 November 2014. The areas covered included land reform, poll tax debts, secondary and higher education, and public health. Even with the inclusion of land reform, there is still nothing – if you don’t mind the intended pun – to set the heather alight with. This is not social democracy, nor is it some very tiny steps towards it – which is why so many in the commentariat must have taken leave of their senses to claim that the SNP/Scottish Government is social democratic.

Social democracy is founded upon the intervention of the state to ameliorate market processes and outcomes. Hence, we would the see regulation of prices, wages and profits as well as extending public ownership into the private sector. Nationalising Prestwick airport and the debt of the green wave energy company, Pelamis, hardly count here.

It was also disappointing – but not unexpected – to see Nicola Sturgeon announce her Miliband-esque political ideology of ‘one Scotland’. In doing so, no account was taken – nor could it be taken – of class. Scotland is not a single homogenous social unit, and within Scotland there are contrasting and conflicting interests (political, economic, social) between classes. Questions need to be asked of ‘one Scotland’ – whose interests are best served by it, and who will benefit most from what it turns out to be?

Other ways in which Sturgeon disappoints are that she follows the time honoured practice of establishing commissions to look at issues and develops capacity for processes but not outcomes. In regard of the former, this is the case on alternatives to the council tax and further measures on land reform. So-called ‘evidence based’ policy has now become a political straight jacket that prevents political parties from quickly developing policy on pressing issues and legislating on them.

In regard of the latter, again illustrated by land reform, measures will be taken to allow government ministers to intervene where the scale of land ownership or the conduct of a landlord was acting as a barrier to sustainable development, to set up a Scottish Land Reform Commission, improve the transparency and accountability of land ownership and make information on land, its value and ownership more readily available in one place, and action to ensure charities holding large areas of land were under an obligation to engage with local communities. So, what this means is that nothing will necessarily actually change. It all depends on ‘if’ and ‘when’. It’s a bit like the Scottish Parliament being able to vary income tax. Since 1999, it has chosen never to use this power.

Of much less importance, but still of some note is that two former SNP MSPs (John Finnie, John Wilson) have joined the Scottish Greens and intend to stand in 2016 as Green candidates. This adds a little extra spice to Peter McColls’ article in this edition. And, how this plays out for the Scottish Left Project will be interesting given that Wilson was one of its initial signatories (see Cat Boyd’s article in this edition).

Our next issue (March-April 2015) will be almost wholly dedicated to examining the issues surrounding the Westminster general election. Along with the referendum and the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the general election will be a key staging post in the how politics develop in Scotland over the next few years.

To end on, it should be noted that this is now the fifteenth year of Scottish Left Review. For the twelve years in which I have been on editorial board and now, as editor, I would like to pay tribute to Bob Thomson, the chair of our board.

He has been a thoughtful, steady and insightful guiding light throughout all these years from the inception of Scottish Left Review. His ability to remain unflappable and upbeat throughout all the travails of keeping the magazine afloat and heading in the right (left!) direction needs fulsome praise and recognition. I’m sure readers, subscribers, contributors and supporters will join with me in a heartfelt round of applause for him.

One very last thing – a poem suggested by Peter Lomas for our public health theme:

‘Eat more fruit!’ the slogans say,
‘More fish, more beef, more bread!’
But I’m on Unemployment pay
My third year now, and wed.
And so I wonder when I’ll see
The slogan when I pass,
The only one that would suit me, –
‘Eat More Bloody Grass!’

Joe Corrie (Slamannan, Stirlingshire 1894 – Edinburgh 1968)
From The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, (ed.) Alan Bold, Penguin, 1970.