Richard Leonard: Equality comes with shift of power to the people

PEOPLE are discontented, ­disaffected and hungry for change. The so-called consumer society robs us of our universal humanity and our environment of its natural balance.

Last year almost three quarters of a million people in Scotland were prescribed anti-depressants. Picture: PA

Living standards are squeezed to offset the falling rate of profit. Women’s work in particular continues to be systematically undervalued, with the poorest of the poor hit hardest of all.

But it is not just material well-being which is under assault. There is a widespread feeling of powerlessness, not least in an economy which is increasingly concentrated in fewer hands.

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People’s lives are dominated by decisions over which they have little or no control.

Last year almost three quarters of a million people in Scotland were prescribed anti-depressants. The Glasgow Centre for Population Health has highlighted evidence that huge inequalities in life expectancy may be directly linked to chronic stress brought on by a lifetime of powerlessness and hopelessness.

This is not a society at ease with itself.

Little wonder then that some voices on the left of Scottish politics advocate a Yes vote in next year’s referendum as a short cut to an immaculate conception of socialism.

But the problem is this. If socialism means anything at all it is the extension of democracy into the economic as well as the political system. If we want to make our economy socially accountable, challenge the over-accumulation of extreme wealth, and where required extend common ownership then we need to act at the level where that economic power lies. It does not lie in Scotland. That is not to talk Scotland down, it is to talk the hard facts of the Scottish economy today.

The commanding heights of the Scottish economy are dominated by wholly owned subsidiaries of foreign multinationals and London Stock Exchange listed joint stock companies with little of their stock owned or controlled from Scotland.

The government’s own figures show that by 2012 fewer than 18 per cent of all businesses in Scotland employing over 250 people were Scottish owned. In manufacturing the figure is even starker.

Add to this the fact that the Scottish economy is in a highly advanced state of economic and monetary union within the United Kingdom. And that we export twice the value of goods and services to the rest of the UK as we do to the whole of the rest of the world put together.

Then it becomes clearer that whilst the creation of a separate Scottish state is ­perfectly feasible it would defeat rather than advance the higher cause of economic democracy that we so badly need to strive for. In this sense alone nationalism is not a liberating ideology but an inhibiting one.

This weekend’s international May Day celebrations are a sharp reminder that the decisive struggle for the labour movement is not and has never been about the shift of powers from one parliament and one set of politicians to another. It is and has always been about the shift in power from those who happen to own the wealth back to those who through their hard work and endeavour create it.

Handing sovereignty to the people for 15 hours for one day next September is no substitute for this. What we need is a fundamental and permanent shift in power in people’s daily lives in their workplace and communities.

Of course much more can be done through a devolved Scottish Parliament on land reform and community empowerment and cooperative development, on building a sustainable industrial policy as an alternative to laissez faire, by legislating for progressive reform of local taxation and the return of powers to local government.

These would all aid in the building of a more equal Scotland and so should find a place in a distinctive Scottish Labour vision for change which is firmly rooted in the Party’s tradition of Scottish Home Rule.

We make our own history, but the radical changes that working people are crying out for, not only in Scotland but across the rest of these islands will not be secured if we wilfully disregard the balance of economic forces we face.

The big challenges before us – social, ecological and economic – find an insufficient answer in nationalism or patriotism, Scottish or British, but every answer in a socialism which has democracy as its ­essence and humanity at its centre.

• Richard Leonard is a member of the Red Paper Collective and a former chairperson of the Scottish Labour Party