Lesley Riddoch: The colour of social justice

Nicola Sturgeon can only promise so much, but those seeking change expect the SNP to lead. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Nicola Sturgeon can only promise so much, but those seeking change expect the SNP to lead. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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As the party aspiring to fight for greater equality the SNP must start delivering real evidence, writes Lesley Riddoch

ANYONE who thought 18 September represented the end of constitutional debate in Scotland must now realise they were much mistaken.

It’s as if Scotland’s collective and long-suppressed immune system has been kicked back into life by the two-year campaign, providing energy for a clear-out of broken, old structures and appetite for real social change.

Whilst English votes for English laws is largely motivated by party political opportunism, Scotland’s re-awakening has reinvigorated genuine debate about the location of power in England. Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones, who confounded SNP hopes of Celtic unity over a shared currency during the referendum campaign, is also back on-side over the EU referendum. He backs Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that an English majority would not give the UK government authority to extract other nations in the British “family” from the EU as well.

Scottish Labour by contrast is stuck in the past, debating where control in the party should lie (again), and that may let Nicola Sturgeon steal Labour’s heritage as the party of social justice in her first speech as SNP leader this weekend.

Yet in this democratic maelstrom, the SNP is not immune. Its deputy leadership contest has focussed on issues once considered marginal – like getting more women and young people selected as candidates and establishing common cause with independence supporters beyond the SNP for the 2015 Westminster elections. If democracy means anything, the SNP’s first post-referendum conference must see new members upset Scotland’s most disciplined party with new perspectives and priorities. And it’s vital that they do. Most eyes will be on personalities – especially Alex Salmond who will clarify whether he’s to tackle Danny Alexander for his Inverness Westminster seat. But in the end, policy matters. Of course, the party that “bought out” the Bedroom Tax north of the Border already has some credibility in pursuit of social justice.

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Nicola Sturgeon will doubtless argue that nothing less than Home Rule – devolving control of welfare policy from Westminster to Holyrood – will end gratuitous attacks on the disabled and poor and allow the Scottish Government to enforce a living wage or set a higher minimum wage.

Hopefully, the new SNP leader will outline a new philosophy, making equality, full employment and social solidarity the main goals of government – mirroring the Nordic experience where such a shift in priorities has helped them top Unicef’s child well-being index and become the happiest nations on earth whilst also receiving triple-A rating from the credit agencies.

But most of these goals need constitutional change which will take time and relentless political pressure.

Meanwhile, some less obvious aspects of social injustice could be tackled by the Scottish Government tomorrow.

Firstly, Nicola Sturgeon could reverse the creeping centralisation of power that’s taken place over decades and accelerated on the SNP’s watch. Public opposition to single police and fire services seemed to take SNP leaders by surprise. The U-turn over armed police didn’t solve the problem. It just removed the most vexatious manifestation of an even larger democratic deficit. Scots currently inhabit almost completely disempowered communities. And that is a social justice issue.

During the referendum campaign, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities bravely highlighted the hollowing out of power in grassroots Scotland over the last century – a process of merger and abolition which has left Scotland’s councils the largest and most remote in Europe. In Germany, councils with similar powers have populations roughly 16 times smaller. France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium all have smaller, municipal councils with (generally) higher local election turnouts, more folk standing for election (particularly women and young people since councils are closer to home), more tax-raising clout and fewer disempowering, top-down governance structures.

If Scotland was governed like the rest of Europe we would have hundreds of councils – not just 32. Towns like St Andrews, Dalkeith, Helensburgh and Methil would run themselves. Islands like Barra, Skye and Mull, ditto. This would not guarantee Nirvana. It would guarantee that local people are treated as equals in planning and development battles - not bit players. A genuinely powerful local domain would offer a constructive conduit for the energy of thousands of restless folk currently pouring into political meetings looking for change. Of course, until the constitutional situation is properly settled, there is good reason to keep a high level focus. But truly transformational change generally occurs at the grassroots – not in palaces, courts or parliaments. And such change is possible right now if the SNP finally grasps the thistle and promises to hand powers and budgets back to communities – not oversized councils.

Last week 400 folk for Scotland’s first Rural Parliament in Oban. The event eloquently reflected the changing nature of power in rural Scotland. The venue was not a council facility but a community owned and run sports centre. The group was addressed by speakers from rural parliaments in Sweden and Estonia. Estonia has a population of 1.1 million people and 193 councils. Swedish communes are effectively Home Rule Councils – collecting all tax from local citizens earning under £35k.

By contrast, Scotland’s new rural parliamentarians went home to communities that lack any formal power to effect change – unless you count community councils with £400 budgets and no statutory powers. The Community Empowerment Bill doesn’t tackle this power vacuum but will offer a plethora of new ways for local people to circumvent these structural failings by pouring voluntary effort into consultation processes and community buyouts. It’s time for more than that. It’s time for structural change to bring control, tax collection and democracy to community level.

Indeed this relates to the second much-needed social justice reform that lies within Holyrood’s control – land reform.

This summer the Land Reform Review Group called for an upper limit on land holdings, the imposition of business rates on sporting estates, a right to buy for agricultural tenants and equal inheritance rights for children. Civil servants are currently drafting legislation and hopes are high that long-running inequalities which prevent freedom of movement and employment in rural Scotland are about to be removed.

I appreciate Nicola Sturgeon can only promise so much in one speech. But all-controlling landowners and overlarge councils are both forms of structural social injustice. Will they soon be history?

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