Opting for higher taxes and the resulting social benefits is an anathema to those fixated with austerity, writes Joyce McMillan
On Wednesday, it happened again; for the second time in a year, a report was published declaring Denmark the happiest of nations, as compared with the rest of Europe, and the entire world. Among some sections of the media, the news was met with incredulity; how on earth could people be happy, asked a baffled interviewer on BBC Radio 4, when they have to pay 49 per cent of their incomes in tax?
In truth, though, the news of Denmark’s happiness – with Finland a close runner-up, and Norway and Sweden also highly placed – will come as no surprise to students of sophisticated measures of national performance. People, it seems, do not mind paying high taxes so long as they see a good return for their money in terms of public services and social solidarity. And the colossal success of the high-tax, high-spend, high-equality Nordic model in promoting human happiness should give us pause, this week, as a report emerges which claims that one in three people in Britain is now living in some degree of poverty, a proportion which has doubled over the last 30 years.
Of course the report – published by the Townsend Centre at the University of Bristol – will be dismissed by those who cannot see on our streets the gaunt marching men and starving children of the 1930s, and who therefore suggest that modern measures of “relative poverty” can be taken with a pinch of salt.
It is worth remembering, though, that the government’s own statistics record an average decline in British real earnings, since the crash of 2008, of around 6 per cent, the steepest in modern history. And if you look more deeply into the Townsend Centre’s statistics, an increasingly poignant picture emerges of a kind of hidden poverty, of people so shocked to find themselves unable to afford basic necessities – after two generations of relative prosperity – that they struggle mightily to keep up appearances, even while switching off the heating in winter, and skipping meals so as to feed their children. And what is new, above all, is the growing army of the “working poor”, the millions who are not unemployed, but stuck in dead-end jobs which simply do not pay them enough to lead a decent, secure and dignified life.
And there is no overstating the importance of this decline in the prospects of so many ordinary working people as a factor in 21st century politics. Coupled with high unemployment in many areas, this sense that for millions hard work no longer pays, and no longer delivers the basic elements of a well-lived life – the chance to create a home, to have children, to enjoy their childhood in a reasonably relaxed and secure atmosphere, to look forward to a hopeful future for them – lies behind the huge discontent with mainstream parties that now plagues British politics, boosting support for UKIP in England, and also helping the SNP, which increasingly positions itself as a bulwark against Westminster’s neoliberal consensus.
What’s much less clear, though, is exactly how any part of Britain can now escape from the ratchet of growing inequality and declining real wages into which our economy now seems locked. This week marks the 30th anniversary of the crisis of the 1984 miners’ strike, at the “battle of Orgreave”; and there can be no doubt that the defeat and humiliation of Britain’s trade union movement in the 1980s has contributed to a steady decline, ever since, in the slice of the nation’s earnings that ends up on the plate of ordinary workers. And if you add to that collective rejection of organised labour the almost religious belief in deregulation and the reduction of employment rights that still informs neoliberal politicians across all three main UK parties, then there seems almost no hope of reversing this entrenched culture of negative social change, often misdescribed as “reform”.
Yet if there is ample reason for pessimism of the intellect, political progress always depends on optimism of the will. This week, the SNP finance secretary John Swinney boldly broke with the austerity consensus at Westminster by arguing that an independent Scotland could and should borrow substantially in its early years, in order to invest in the nation’s infrastructure and people. The SNP is far from being right about everything when it comes to the economy; its old-world attachment to the panacea of traditional economic growth is so out of time as to be almost alarming.
About the need to break the austerity cycle, though, John Swinney is absolutely right, as a mere glance at the UK’s ballooning current-account deficit confirms; the kind of crude austerity measures implemented by George Osborne typically end up costing more than they save. The European right is fond of quoting with horror a statistic which says that the EU has 7 per cent of the world population, 25 per cent of its GDP, and 50 per cent of its social spending. Yet to me, that looks like a portrait of success; of huge relative wealth rightly redistributed into social goods, as a result of democratic process
And there is no doubt that an independent Scotland could, if it chose, move towards the winning Nordic version of that European model much faster than the remaining UK. This doesn’t mean that the rest of the UK doesn’t need the same shift in political direction, and the same divorce – after a long 40 years – from the dismal ideology that always puts markets first, and humanity a poor second.
Long ago, though, the Skye land rights campaigner Great Mary Of the Songs is said to have said, “Perhaps once, in your life, you will feel the axe in your hand; and then you must strike.” We in Scotland now have the means in our hands to change the political landscape for good, and to strike a long overdue blow for popular democracy against the entrenched systems and assumptions of the powers that be. And perhaps the time has come to take a deep breath and strike that blow – not only for ourselves and our children, but for all those in Scotland and elsewhere who have come to reject the lie that “there is no alternative”; when in fact the alternatives are right on our doorstep, and not only thriving, but beaming with happiness.