Politics is a choice between left and right – tackling inequality, injustice and poverty and a redistribution of power on the one hand or relying on trickle-down and the free market on the other. And the goals of the wider movement of which my own union GMB is proudly part have always been international. We are a worldwide labour movement with the noble aim of the economic emancipation of Earth’s toiling millions.
The decisive shift in power we strive for is not and never has been a shift in power from one Parliament or one set of politicians to another but the shift in power from those who own the wealth to those who through their hard work and endeavour actually create it. It is in this context that GMB will consider its position on the referendum on Scottish independence.
There is no doubt that an independent Scotland is viable. The question for us to debate is whether or not an independent Scotland is preferable, whether or not we would be better or worse off and whether or not it would make our underlying purpose – which is not merely to get the best deal for working people from the current economic and social system but to fundamentally change it – more or less achievable.
We need to stir emotions in the debate on Scottish independence, but we need to apply our intellect too. We need light as well as heat. Economic relations govern power relations and the economic facts are these:
According to latest Scottish government estimates the annual value of exports from Scotland to the rest of the UK is £34 billion, the value to the rest of the world is £19bn. In other words Scotland exports almost twice as much to the rest of the UK in goods and services as to the whole of the rest of the world put together.
The annual value of imports into Scotland from the rest of the UK is £44bn, the value from the rest of the world is £19bn. This means Scotland imports more than twice the value of goods and services from the rest of the UK as it does from the whole of the rest of the world put together.
The Scottish government’s recent report into the Scottish corporate sector 2011 concluded:
Registered enterprises with ultimate ownership outside Scotland represented 3.1 per cent of enterprises and accounted for 35.5 per cent of employment and 56.2 per cent of turnover. Within large firms (250-plus employees) they represented 82.5 per cent of enterprises and accounted for 63.9 per cent of employment and 77.5 per cent of turnover.”
The commanding heights of the Scottish economy are externally owned and controlled.
As an example, the private-sector corporations which are the top 10 biggest employers of GMB members in Scotland – Transco, Scottish Gas, Diageo, BAE, Chivas Brothers, United Biscuits, Asda, G4S, NDL and Scottish Power – are all either UK-owned and controlled, quoted on the London Stock Exchange or highly dependent on the whole UK market of 60 million people, compared with the Scottish market of five million, for the sale of their goods and services.
So Scotland is in a highly advanced state of economic and monetary union with the rest of the UK, as well as being part of a single currency area.
The people of Scotland continue to be acutely affected by strategic political, economic and corporate decisions taken in London. This would not change upon political independence. Giving up a direct vote on the fiscal and monetary policy framework of Scotland’s largest market, its biggest economic area and the level where corporate power rests is perfectly possible. The question is, does it make any sense?
Public spending per head is currently 19 per cent higher in Scotland than England, thanks to the redistributive principles enshrined in the Barnett formula. Fiscal autonomy in Scotland as part of a “devo-max” settlement is therefore possible, but it would end this redistribution of resources.
With a current deficit between expenditure and tax take, including oil revenues, in Scotland of £14bn and the SNP projecting a vision of Scotland as a low-tax Monaco of the north, fiscal self-sufficiency suggests major public service cuts or substantial personal tax rises.
That’s not to say that more powers could not make home rule in Scotland work better. But remember many powers that already exist have not been exercised. The power to extend public ownership, including to the railways and to the energy sector, and the power to vary income tax have not been used:
- The opportunity to create a democratically run investment bank and a vibrant workers’ co-operative sector along continental European lines has been ignored.
- Nor has the power of public-sector pension schemes and other instruments been harnessed to regenerate local economies and provide alternatives to PFI/PPP.
- There has also been the chance to strengthen the powers of Scottish local government and introduce progressive local tax reform, but nothing has been done.
All of these would have been radical changes. All are possible under the existing devolution settlement. All are means of shifting power back to the people. And all underused or unused altogether.
So it is right to pose questions about our democracy – how can we best achieve decent housing for all, a right to useful work, a living wage and equal pay, dignity in retirement, decent health care for all, investment in peace not war and economic as well as political citizenship.
If we want to meet these challenges, if we want to see a redistribution of not just wealth but power, we need to understand where power lies – economic as well as political. If we want to have government of the people, by the people, for the people we need to win economic, not merely political reform at the level where it rests.
Nationalism is a response to this, but it is an insufficient one. What we need is a far more radical transformation, one of a socialist kind. That demands more than ever a unity of purpose which binds not divides working people right across these islands with the trade union movement as the vehicle.
With the Tories back in office it is little wonder that support for Scottish independence has risen, but the Tory attempts to destroy the National Health Service in England and dismantle the welfare state right across the UK are nothing to do with their Englishness and everything to do with their Tory ideology.
Similarly their raids on public-sector pensions and attacks on the weakest in our society, including the removal of protection against unfair dismissal, are not anti-Scottish but anti-working class.
That’s the real division we are living with in these times, not one between Scotland and England, but between an economy run in the interests of the rich and one that should and could be run for the common good.
Richard Leonard is GMB Scotland political officer and organiser. This article first appeared in the Morning Star.