Can we set sail the good ship Scotland on a new course for social justice?

As the Calmac crisis continues to push the SNP Scottish Government further towards the rocks, Gregor Gall introduces a major new book on facilitating a future society in Scotland from the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

We are now one year into Nicola Sturgeon’s third SNP Scottish Government. Barely a week goes by without a new, regressive development in society in Scotland at the behest of the Scottish Government being reported, whether concerning the deplorable state of our under-resourced NHS, the missing of the Scottish Government’s own poverty reduction targets, the sale of public resources to privateers (e.g. windfarm licenses), failure to progress on stopping the destruction of our environment or the use of private companies instead of the public sector (e.g. consultancy on the National Care Service). This regression deepens and reinforces the inequality and inequity that still scars society in Scotland since – even despite – the devolution settlement of 1999. It is clear that the Scottish Parliament is not proving to be the shield to protect the majority of people from the cold winds of economic change that many hoped it would. This amounts to a crisis of social democracy and, therefore, of social justice too. It is not just about the competence of Scottish Government – this goes much, much deeper and is much more profound than that.

The Scottish Parliament was premised on the core principle that state action could produce a more civil and decent society by intervening in the processes and outcomes of market capitalism. Fairness and equality were the watch words. Yet in a process begun by preceding Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition Scottish Governments under the tutelage of ‘new’ Labour, each consecutive Scottish Government has now retreated from this core belief, increasingly succumbing to the ideology of neo-liberalism – essentially, the belief that the capitalist free market is the best means for organising society. The SNP-led Scottish Government is just the latest re-incarnation of this. Boiled down to the essentials, it believes that a successful capitalist Scottish economy is necessary to provide the wealth – especially in the form tax revenue – to provide for increased living standards and a welfare state. Woe be tide anything that gets in the way of capitalism being allowed to provide this role – even if it means pain and sacrifice for the many and riches and influence for the few. There is, of course, a mountain of evidence to show this is wrong and immoral but such is the hold of the neo-liberal ideology that our political-managerial class deem there to be no alternative and are inured to any pleas to be ‘nice’.

At the same time, barely a day goes by without some mention of the continuing constitutional crisis in Scotland. For example, in the pages of the Herald, by far Scotland’s most serious and widely read broadsheet newspaper, the case for and against independence is endlessly debated and poured over. Yet there is a significant social stasis as despite loss of the referendum on 18 September 2014 to the argument for independence, the issue of independence has never gone away, especially as the SNP has continued to form the Scottish Government since then with its popular but as yet stillborn mandate to hold another referendum. Political polarisation over independence versus enhanced devolution is – and has been – the endless name of the game and will continue to be so for some time to come. Each political issue is viewed through the lens of being for or against independence. In the meantime, what is obscured in particular is the nature of the prospectus of independence – it could be many and varied from the SNP’s neo-liberal version to social democratic one or even a socialist option. Independence in and of itself is a nefarious concept unless we start asking the very basic questions: independence from what and for who? But by the same token, this polarisation also obscures what continued or enhanced devolution would look like, what it would be used to deliver and for whom. 

This is the context of the publication of A New Scotland: Building an Equal, Fair and Sustainable Society. Scottish Left Review’s sister organisation, the Jimmy Reid Foundation, has brought together over fifty leading voices on the left to produce a book of twenty-five chapters on pretty much all the essential components of the past, present and – crucially – future of society in Scotland. Although the writers express their respective perspectives on independence and enhanced devolution, they do not let these get in the way of their diagnosis and prognosis of what can be done in the here and now with existing powers to set society in Scotland on a new course of genuine social, economic and political justice. While they do no lay out any roadmaps as such, they do lay out the principles and polices that are needed to make society for the people in Scotland equal, fair and sustainable. They all want the ship of Scotland to set sail on a new course within local seas and global oceans.

The Scottish Government as head of the Scottish state is rightly the focus on most of their attentions, whether that be over health, housing, transport or education to name just a few areas. But many of the chapters also look at what can be achieved in civil society, especially through community campaigns and unions. Not only is there something for everyone who is on the left or looking to the left in this book but together the chapters provide a comprehensive guide to the key questions of our age: what is wrong with society in Scotland and how can we put it right? They show how our ‘good’ ship Scotland can set sail on a new course and arrive at a destination of equality, fairness and sustainability.  

We showcase a couple of the chapters to whet your appetites for reading the book itself. Below are the contents by chapter and we remind readers that a number of the contributors have already showcased their chapters in the previous issues of Scottish Left Review. They are:

How can SNP and Greens end the housing crisis in Scotland? Regina Serpa

Can the Greens green the SNP on transport? David Spaven

Rebuilding the Scottish economy through worker ownership – John Bratton and David Erdal