The increasing signs of a Britain broken beyond repair may tip the separation scales, writes Lesley Riddoch
Did something change in the balance of the independence argument last week? Did the string of shameful revelations about life in Britain’s dog-eat-dog, market-obsessed, selective society finally reach breaking point? Did opting for “security” in a visibly broken UK start to look as deceptively risky as the evident risks of independence? Was it just a bad week or something more? And what was the last straw? • It could have been the Social Mobility Commission’s revelation that work doesn’t actually pay in David Cameron’s Britain – no matter how many banners about “hard-working families” appear at his party’s conference. The Commission found two-thirds of children living in poverty have one working parent and three-quarters of them are working full time. Not surprisingly it also found two-thirds of Brits believe “who you know” matters more than “what you know” when it comes to getting on. • It could have been news that a third of a million people in the seventh richest country on earth are dependent on charity hand-outs from food banks. • It could have been a survey showing a quarter of the public has less than £50 a month to spend after bills – backing Labour’s claim the average wage packet value has dropped for 38 of the coalition’s 39 months in power. • It could have been the Orchid View Care Home in Sussex where “institutionalised abuse” left residents thirsty and malnourished and led directly to the deaths of five people. Staff falsified medical records in a flagrant disregard for procedure and basic humanity that echoed the recent Mid-Staffordshire scandal. That hospital is now being run by administrators after an inquiry found 1,200 patients could have died as a result of staff neglect and a management cover-up. • The same bare-faced lying appears to explain last week’s extraordinary revelations about police attempts to frame former chief whip Andrew Mitchell. And it accounts for the reluctance of Surrey Police to come clean about their bungled investigation into Jimmy Savile – it took a Freedom of Information request to get the transcript published. • If the last straw wasn’t another incident of blatant deception by an English police force, perhaps it was the brazen 9 per cent price rises by two of the Big Six energy providers – facilitated by the privatisation of the energy industry encouraged by successive UK governments. Today a further cross-border distinction will be made when UK ministers announce a multi-billion pound deal for French energy firm EDF to build a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. It’s expected two Chinese nuclear power giants are also expected to have a 30 per cent stake. Why are British FTSE businesses – currently flush with cash – failing to invest in nuclear power? Are the massive subsidies not sufficient inducement? Is it easier to draw bonuses, invest in China or the emerging southern housing bubble or keep speculating in land? With prices in the energy-rich UK amongst the highest in Europe and an energy strategy ignored by Britain’s top energy firms, who now claims privatisation has benefited consumers? • And yet the Royal Mail has been sold off, RBS will be broken up and privatised and – despite a petition signed by 23,000 passengers and 60 MPs – the East Coast Rail line is about to return to private ownership. • If all of that wasn’t the last straw, it could have been news that high street banks charge poor customers more for unarranged overdrafts than pay-day lenders like Wonga. • Or the English teacher’s strike, the revelation that one in ten Free School teachers is unqualified, or Michael Gove’s insistence on performance related pay – creating more pressure for teachers in England to dump demanding students, non-exam related material and extra-curricular activity. Selection and more competition are the only answers for England’s badly performing education system – testing kids to destruction. Scotland is charting a very different course with the “league-table-free” Curriculum for Excellence – ending national exams at 16 and handing more control to teachers in the belief innovative, self-reliant children are produced by innovative, self-reliant teachers. We are living in different educational worlds.
Will these low points in a shameful week for British democracy start to make undecided Scots wonder about the long term wisdom of remaining within the UK?
Of course the Labour Party is riding high in the polls and the coalition’s control over economic and social policy might be short-lived. But the latest COMRES poll shows Labour’s lead over the Tories has shrunk from 8 to 3 per cent in a month. In any case, what kind of Labour government will get elected by an English electorate that largely backs performance-related pay, Ukip, Trident, privatisation and cutting benefits?
British politics has morphed from a pattern of dramatic swings into a system of change with no real change. The last Labour government did measurably lift people out of poverty. But the price was facilitating a corporate takeover of British life by speculators and big business. The result has not just been banking collapse – it’s been the breakdown of democratic values within British society.
We have changed. Over centuries with our own institutions and now 13 years of devolution, Scots have developed a distinctive outlook and a different way of doing things from the “British” default. It was less evident when Labour controlled both parliaments, but the gap is now glaringly stark.
On Radio 4’s Any Questions in the Northumberland village of Rothbury last week, I was astonished to find a North of England audience more in tune with “Scottish values” than those of their own English nation or of the UK state.
Of course that’s not to say Scotland is Nirvana. The failure of Alex Salmond to even mention the sub-East European health outcomes and earlier than average mortality of many poor Scots through violence, suicide, drugs and alcohol misuse is lamentable. This is happening on our watch. We need to understand why.
And yet this weekend the SNP leader was on the money, delivering a powerful, persuasive speech at the SNP conference which bristled with contempt for the privatisation-dominated agenda of the Westminster coalition. His point about publicly-owned Scottish Water – with the lowest average bills in Britain – was well chosen. There is another way to the path endorsed by both main Westminster parties, but it’s very questionable if it can be reached within the UK.
Will that growing realisation become an indyref game-changer? Time and hindsight will tell.