The First Minister has yet to explain how Scotland will be more socially just under independence, writes Gregor Gall.
On the day Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed off the “Edinburgh Agreement” over the terms of the forthcoming referendum on independence, three events happened that Salmond could have used to signal what kind of “new” Scotland was on offer under the SNP’s vision.
The first concerned the Scottish Power price rise on gas and electricity. The second, Starbucks’ evasion of corporation tax, and the third, Vion closing its Broxborn meat processing plant.
Under an independent Scotland, Salmond could have said no utility company would be allowed to raise prices two or three times in excess of inflation. Under an independent Scotland, he could have said companies will pay their fair share of tax and neither avoidance nor evasion will be permitted. And finally, he could have said that under an independent Scotland, employers won’t be able to up and leave without paying a social debt back to those affected workers.
Instead, he chose to emphasise the constitutional aspect of people in Scotland being the best placed to make decisions about what happens in Scotland. In other words, he chose not to address the pressing social and economic issues that govern people’s lives and which they care most passionately about.
His speech to the SNP conference showed a slight change in tack when he proclaimed that the best way to defend the gains of devolution on the social wage (free prescriptions, no student fees, free care for the elderly and the like) was to vote for independence.
But even in spite of this, Salmond and the SNP are still not offering a convincing or credible vision of a socially just Scotland. This is the biggest reason why the level of support for independence has flatlined at 30 per cent – and this has been after the official launch of the Yes campaign in May this year.
Aside from any Olympic bounce, it’s not as though the “Better Together” No campaign has landed many blows on Salmond and SNP. This means this is all the SNP’s doing. And this state of affairs cannot go on if the SNP is to win the referendum.
Indeed, if the SNP loses the referendum by as large a margin as the polls currently suggest, it will also lose the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections by a wide margin. The consequence of this is that it could be in the political wilderness for a decade or more – even a generation.
With the SNP imploded, it will be Labour that will again be dominant in Scotland. Under an agenda led by Johann Lamont in Holyrood and, in all likelihood, Ed Miliband in Westminster, not only will universal benefits be questioned but cuts and austerity will bear down on Scotland from both sides of the border.
Progressive social change will be cast to the political margins and no amount of devo-max will allow the raising of tax and the loosening of the purse strings to ameliorate poverty and inequality.
But none of this is inevitable if the SNP was to change course and to consistently and coherently lay out a socially just agenda for what it will do under independence.
At the Yes launch, Salmond said an independent Scotland would be fairer, greener and more prosperous. It is the fairer and the more prosperous elements that are the keys that can unlock the door.
To do so, he must now stop talking about Scotland as a single unit being more prosperous and turn to the issue of what will be the internal distribution of that prosperity. Will its internal distribution end child poverty? Will it see a living wage instituted? Will it see a reduction in unemployment and so on and so on?
The answer to all of these and more questions must be an unqualified and unambiguous yes. Salmond must answer how this will come about – and this answer must be in the form of progressive taxation for individuals and companies.
He cannot square the circle by saying a cut in corporation tax to a Celtic Tiger level will drive up investment so creating jobs and, thus, tax receipts to pay for the necessary social spending. The reason he cannot do this is because of the long-term continuation of economic recession and because such trickledown economics is what created the recession in the first place.
This must then lead Salmond to say that it is not simply a case of defending the gains of devolution by voting for independence – rather, it must be a case of extending and deepening the modest gains of devolution through independence.
So the building of the first public hospital in Scotland must be augmented by increased expenditure on the NHS and social services. Wages must be set at a level that ends the phenomenon of the working poor and stops the taxpayer subsidising employers who pay low wages. But it must also involving making the case that only under independence can new gains become politically possible. The public ownership of the railways is one such example. In other words – and although Salmond often uses the term – he has never so far set out his social democratic vision for an independent Scotland. Without it, he cannot make a positive and meaningful case for independence.
It is only by moving beyond vacuous soundbites about fairness and equality that Salmond can win over those that are as yet the undecided “don’t knows” and some of the Unionist camp who remain unconvinced that Labour will deliver devo-max after a No vote.
Above all, Salmond must convincingly make the case that ordinary citizens will be materially better off under independence.
This pounds and pence argument will necessarily mean casting aside support from the Brian Souters of the business world.
• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire (firstname.lastname@example.org)