Energy price crisis shows why Scotland should free itself from UK's Tory nightmare – Joyce McMillan
In contemplating the early days of the Truss government, the question for most of us on the left and centre-left must be what to do with the rage.
There is rage, for a start, at their stubborn obsession with a discredited economic theory – the one Joe Biden calls “trickle-down economics” – that has now failed so dramatically, over four decades, that it has been rejected by the International Monetary Fund, damned as a basis for current policy by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, and subjected to an impact assessment by the government’s own Office of Budget Responsibility that our new Chancellor simply refuses to publish.
There is rage, of course, at the blithering climate denialism that apparently motivates their energy policy, characterised by an aversion to renewable energy so profound that ministers like Jacob Rees-Mogg would apparently rather burn the planet than stop investing in the gas and oil industries which – as current US Congressional hearings are making clear – have been systematically lying to us for half a century about the likely catastrophic impact of their activities on our habitable environment.
There is the rage – however futile it may seem, after two weeks of relentless media glorification of all things British and constitutional – over the utterly broken constitutional arrangements that have foisted the Truss government on us, without electoral mandate, and without even the support of a majority of its own MPs.
And above all, there is rage at the social media posts that keep coming, from well-meaning, hard-working British people sharing hints on how to survive a British winter without switching on the heating they can no longer afford to run.
Fleecy blankets with hoods, hot water bottles in front of the telly, early to bed with the low-power electric blanket on, even candle-ends to warm your hands by – these posts often seem surreal, in the year 2022; and yet they represent the real experience of millions in Britain whose incomes have been flatlining for 15 years, and who now face such a perfect storm of food and energy price inflation that they simply can no longer afford the basics.
I have long hoped to see a time when the people of the UK would radically reduce their energy consumption; perhaps through changes in lifestyle, better home insulation, more efficient domestic energy systems, and the mass installation of solar panels.
It honestly never occurred to me, though, that when this reduction came, it would simply be because millions of ordinary citizens can no longer afford to buy energy at all; and this in one of the energy-richest countries on the planet, which has deliberately chosen to organise its energy market to serve the interests of the large oil and gas producing companies, rather than the needs of its people.
We are to be grateful, of course, for the combination of Sunak-Truss rescue packages that will ensure, for most of us, that energy bills only double this winter, rather than quadrupling or worse.
Those comforting themselves with patriotic thoughts of how this is all about “licking Putin” – much as the privations of 1939-45 were about “licking Hitler” – should cast an eye around Europe, and note by how much our energy price rises exceed those in country after country, even those many times more dependent on Russian oil and gas.
As ever, the current punishing of ordinary British people is a policy choice, not an unavoidable natural disaster; and it now seems set to continue, with threatened benefit cuts aimed at part-time workers (that is, mainly at low-paid women with caring responsibilities), and a round of tax cuts that will benefit the rich without assisting the poor, while leaving our desperately under-invested public services ever more impoverished.
There are, it is pleasing to note, some signs of serious resistance to the Truss government and its plans. A nationwide Enough Is Enough campaign has been attracting huge crowds to meetings in major UK cities. Trade unions in some industries are gaining strength, and winning improved pay for their members. And in Scotland, both the recent Sun poll (despite spin to the contrary) and a newly published British Social Attitudes survey show support for independence holding steady at around 47-50 per cent, with the comprehensive Social Attitudes Survey actually finding a 52 per cent majority in favour.
This is not, we should be clear, because the current SNP government has offered an inspiring radical alternative to the current UK regime – so far, it has not done so, and shows few signs of it.
It is, though, because independence at least offers Scotland a chance of returning to something more like normal European governance and policy-making which, despite its flaws, is now producing measurably better results for ordinary workers and citizens in every one of our neighbouring countries, from Norway and Denmark to Ireland and France.
From the perspective of the many former Labour voters in Scotland who now support independence, in other words, England increasingly looks like a country in the grip of a frightening post-imperial crisis, in which the delusions associated with neoliberal economics and with the Brexit project have combined to produce a government founded on denial, an opposition terrified of opposing too vigorously, and a people still – in the majority – willing to suffer a steady decline in their prosperity and wellbeing without rebellion or complaint.
“We are the people of England, and we have not spoken yet,” wrote GK Chesterton of this long-suffering electorate, back in 1908; but if the people of England do not find an effective voice soon, against the hugely damaging policies and attitudes of this generation of Tory governments, they may find the United Kingdom dissolving around them, as the other nations of these islands finally decide to follow a more rational and hopeful path.
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