A New Scotland - Building an Equal, Fair and Sustainable Society

Edited by Gregor Gall

Pluto Press, £14.99

IT has dawned on the nationalist left that the SNP is not exactly socialist. It is barely social democratic, for all the rhetoric about diversity and inclusion. The SNP’s programme for independence, were it implemented, would lead to ten years of public spending constraint under the Sustainable Growth Commission Report of 2018

Nicola Sturgeon has distanced herself somewhat from that document, but it remains the only coherent plan for the post independence economy. The 2013 Independence White Paper, everyone agrees, is radically out of date. Contributors to this compendium of left-wing thinking on self-government have tried to fill the gap.

A New Scotland is a kind of neo-Marxist manifesto covering the usual issues: economy, health, education, culture and climate change. Throughout, the SNP emerges as part of the problem, not the solution. The Scottish Government has tacitly condoned inequality by not doing enough wealth redistribution. It is centralist, timid on land ownership, and defers to the “capitalist car-centric culture”.

So this book is essential reading for anyone wondering what a new Yes Scotland campaign might sound like, if and when there is another referendum. Indeed, it is hard so see how the left could again support a campaign fronted by a Scottish National Party, which they regard as promoting a “neo-liberal capitalist” agenda.

One of the key fault lines will be Europe. The former SNP MP George Kerevan says that, to achieve economic autonomy, the first thing Scotland has to do is stay out of the European Union. He regards it as an engine of global neoliberalism.

Like many on the nationalist left, Kerevan favours the arms-length relationship enjoyed by Norway: in the single market but free from the Brussels legal straight jacket. This will not appeal to Nicola Sturgeon who regards rejoining the EU as almost as important as independence itself.

Mr Kerevan gives a lucid account of how Scotland’s finance-based economy has been hollowed out over the past 15 years of SNP governance. We could have done with more of that in a book that relies too much on ritual denunciations of capitalism.

Mr Kerevan at least knows how the capitalist system works having played a leading role in making Edinburgh the second largest financial centre in the UK, when he was an energetic Labour councillor in the 1990s. How, he asks can a small, independent state maintain a balance between popular national control and global market pressures? “Recent examples are hardly encouraging” he says, “witness the slow-motion collapse of Venezuela.” Quite.

The former UK Treasury statistician Dr Jim Cuthbert skewers the SNP-negotiated fiscal settlement of 2016 which leaves Scotland running up a down escalator. By partially replacing the Barnett formula with income tax, he argues, the Scottish Government now has to grow tax revenues as fast or faster than England just to stand still. This is not sustainable.

The Scottish Government is in a fiscal trap. Cuthbert worries about Scotland’s nominal current account deficit of 8% of GDP, which he accepts is not just GERS/Unionist propaganda. He concludes that the only escape route is independence, hard road though that may be.

Professor Michael Keating, of Aberdeen University, doesn’t go that far. He agrees that the UK government’s centralising measures, like the Internal Market Act, is seriously curbing the Scottish Parliament’s freedom of movement. The Sewel Convention, under which Holyrood is supposed to agree to any UK legislation that cuts across its powers, has gone. The power grab is complete. It will be a hard job just defending what powers Holyrood has left.

Mr Keating doesn’t advocate independence, but he ridicules Third Way federalism. Westminster would never relinquish sovereignty, and anyway England would continue to dominate a federal UK since it has 80% of the population. However, his conclusion that Scotland will have to “muddle through to some version of devo-max or independence-lite” is weak.

Keating is right to point out that, post Brexit, independence is a far harder project to sell than in 2014. The SNP has yet to make the case for erecting a hard border with Scotland’s biggest trading partner, the UK. The 2014 independence prospectus assumed both Scotland and England would remain in the EU single market obviating the need for a regulatory border. It also envisaged a currency union with the UK to avoid financial instability. That is no longer possible .

Many of the contributors seem to think that an independent Scottish government could either send the money men packing or place financial capitalism under under government control. There is an assumption, as one author puts it, that “a sizeable financial sector… is not conducive to democratic economic decision-making”. This is naive.

Financial services employ around 100,000 often highly-paid people, nearly 10% of Scotland’s workforce. Their taxes will be needed to fund an independent Scotland’s public services.

Now that the SNP has decided to keep Scotland’s oil “in the ground”, preferring to import hydrocarbons from abroad, there is little for this post-industrial service economy to offer, growth-wise, apart from whisky, tourism and financial expertise. The green jobs promised a decade ago never materialised. Any suggestion that global companies were to be nationalised would lead to a rush for the exit. They’d head for capitalist-friendly countries like Ireland.

“Public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” is regarded by too many on the left as a solution to Scotland’s economic malaise. One contributor says wholesale nationalisation would create: “a more equal and efficient economic system”. There is little evidence for such an assertion. Recent experience of state ownership – Ferguson, Prestwick and BiFab – suggests quite the reverse.

The inconvenient truth is that an independent Scotland will need more capitalism not less. It cannot rely on Barnett subsidies or state-owned basket cases. As David Erdal and John Beaton point out in their chapter on worker-owned companies: “a business which does not make enough money to stay in business benefits nobody: it could be sustained only by gift from the state, which in turn gets its funds from profitable businesses.”

Finally, if the left wants to be taken seriously, not least by working people, it needs to avoid language that is wilfully obscure. In the culture chapter we are told: “More presciently, once-alternative visions and activism progressing decolonisation of cultural and leisure are now welcomed, but continuing this will necessitate sustained focus and unflinching debate, not least with regard to the current hegemonic control of assets, ownership and cultural sponsorship”

I think that means challenging racism and corporate funding in the arts. But I could be mistaken.