Responsible political leadership means getting out of Parliament and listening to – and so understanding better – the daily lived experiences of people across Scotland.
Last week, in the Barmulloch Residents Centre at a meeting of community activists in the north of Glasgow, I heard once more first-hand about the impact that austerity is having on the lives of thousands of people. The campaigners and representatives of community and faith groups spoke in clear and moving terms about the consequences of cuts to our social and economic fabric: an increase in isolation, rising mental health issues especially amongst young people, the scourge of low pay and the impact of universal credit.
Powerful testimony of the personal as well as the community-wide fall-out of austerity. But they also described the impact of cuts in their own funding: one organisation facing a 40 per cent overnight reduction, another, 60 per cent. These organisations are the glue that help hold communities together. At the close of the meeting, I spoke to the press, and I was asked by a journalist from this newspaper, about my views on the shift that is taking place within the SNP over their policy on currency.
It is highly topical: at its conference next weekend, the SNP is likely to back a far riskier currency policy than even the one that caused them so much difficulty during the 2014 independence referendum. They will now decide on whether to move towards a separate Scottish currency with “a decision on establishing a new currency by the end of the first term of an independent parliament”.
But the question is also directly and immediately relevant to those organisations and communities at the sharp end of austerity in communities like Barmulloch. Not least because austerity isn’t evenly spread across society. We are not all in it together.
The possibility of Scotland having a new currency creates further uncertainty. Communities and organisations in Barmulloch – like their counterparts across Scotland – seek stability and sufficient funding to meet their needs.
Moving to a new currency increases instability with respect to wages, prices and funding. A prosperous, fairer Scotland will not be achieved on the back of a new currency. Then layer on to this the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission that proposes a five-to-ten year period of deficit reduction to get Scotland’s deficit below three per cent. That would mean unprecedented levels of austerity for public spending and has been widely criticised, including by the left of the SNP’s own independence movement.
These two economic policies would lead to even greater austerity than we have witnessed over the last decade. This is not only my assessment but that of former SNP MP and economist George Kerevan.
And this represents the sum total of the economic policy being developed in the SNP as their blueprint for independence. It is not merely the opposite of progressive economics, it is very bad economics.
Two things strike me about this, in the context of that Glasgow community event and the profound questions it posed.
One, the brutal reality of the SNP’s new currency, alongside their cuts programme, is thin gruel for the public. None of this platform is a solution to the very real problems that I am hearing at community events around Scotland. More to the point, in every regard, they would make them considerably worse.
And two, the preoccupation with nationalist projects of one sort or another has the effect of diverting away from the real, harsh and pressing problems facing people. Because while our political system is preoccupied with all of this, it is not considering the radical steps that should be taken to rebalance our society and eradicate its worst social ills. That must change.
The truth is that in the midst of the great challenges of the 21st century, our politics is bound up in competing nationalisms that bury everything beneath endless process. They not only divert us from the greater questions we ought to confront – they offer no coherent solution to them. Nationalism is an insufficient prescription for the great social, economic and environmental challenges we face.
After all we live in extraordinary times. The most powerful nation in the world is led by its worst President in living memory. Whilst the USA turns on itself, the Chinese economy continues to power China’s growth as a global force, an historic shift in the balance of the global financial and economic system. As if this was not a big enough moment, the clock is ticking on the existential threat of climate change. Climate school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion protests are clear enough indicators of how far-removed mainstream political elites are from resolving the threat to our planet.
This week MSPs will return from the Easter recess at a time when people are deeply pessimistic and gravely concerned about the chaos of leaving one major economic market. It does not draw most people towards a second independence referendum but rather for the vast majority strikes a salutary note of caution.
And we are now gearing up for elections to the European Parliament. That itself is already a defeat for Theresa May. We must not allow this election to become a false choice between competing nationalisms: British and Scottish. In fact one of the challenges is to defeat the right-wing populism of Farage and his former party Ukip, and help build a movement for radical reform and real change where the language of priorities is decent jobs and fair pay, an end to poverty and overcoming inequality, good homes and affordable rents, high-quality public services and genuine equality. The Party of European Socialists is calling for an end to the economics of neo-liberalism and for a new social contract along these lines, as part of the construction of a fairer Europe. In or out of membership of the European Union, that is something worth fighting for.