The first time I went to the USA I was 18. It was 1981 and I was shocked by the number of homeless people begging in the streets of America’s cities. The sheer numbers seemed overwhelming. Homeless people on the streets of Glasgow were few and far between, and were overwhelmingly older men with alcohol problems. In the USA they came in all shapes, ages, and sizes, and were legion. But most shocking of all was that there were even people in wheelchairs, parked in the street with a crushed coffee cup to solicit a few cents. There were young people, old people, people who clearly had a disability or mental health problems or sometimes both. People who needed help, help that they were not getting. And in my 18 year old naivety I thought that kind of societal cruelty could never happen in Scotland. Scotland was very far from perfect to be sure, but we had the NHS, a social security system, council housing. We had the idea as a society that we all needed to look after one another or all would be lost in a brutal and inhumane struggle.
But it has happened in Scotland, just as it has happened in the rest of the UK. That’s the visible legacy of decades of austerity, of the legitimisation of cruelty as government policy. Before the lockdown the streets of Scotland’s towns and cities were full of people begging on the streets. And bad as that is, there’s an invisible legacy that’s even greater. That’s a legacy of children whose parents work, but who depend on foodbanks to keep food on the table. It’s a legacy of disabled people struggling to make ends meet while faceless box tickers tell them that they’re fit for work. It’s a legacy of mental illness going untreated, of drug and alcohol addictions spiraling out of control as people self-medicate in order to cope with the hopelessness that blackens their horizons. It’s a legacy of a generation burdened by debt, of dreams of a home of your own going unfulfilled, of insecurity of employment and precarious day to day living on zero hours contracts or self-employment that’s not self-employment at all. It’s a legacy of ever widening inequality, of falling life expectancy. It’s a legacy of the death of joy and hope.
All the while a small minority enriches itself, and preens itself as wealth creators while it parasitises all the life and goodness out of society. It demands special treatment. It tosses us a few bones in the form of a charitable initiative and tells us that it’s a force for good even as it seeks yet more innovative and convoluted ways of avoiding paying taxes. The UK has become a democracy in name only as we are governed by a tiny self-selecting elite, the Oxbridge boys and girls who look after their own. We have a government for which accountability is a word in a foreign language, yet it understands blame all too well. Poverty is to be blamed on the poor. Inequality is to be blamed on those without opportunities. Disability is the responsibility of the disabled. Government failures are the fault of the governed.
Poverty kills. It kills social cohesion as well as individuals, forcing the majority to compete for ever scarcer resources and opportunities. It turns society into the Hunger Games writ large. It destroys compassion. When you have to struggle to look after yourself you have precious little energy left over to care about looking after wider society. Poverty destroys social capital. It impoverishes even those who have personally escaped its worst effects. It breeds the contempt of those who display their disdain on social media and in the comments sections of newspapers. It makes a virtue out of cruelty. And all this suits those who control the reins of power just fine. All this creates an environment where the wealthy and powerful can discuss how much collateral damage they can get away with in order that they can get back to the serious business of making yet more money to add to the piles that they’ve got stashed away in tax havens. That collateral damage is your parents, your grandparents, your neighbours, your friends and relatives. It’s you.
This is the society that the Conservatives want us to get back to once the current crisis has passed. Yet none of it is inevitable, it’s a result of deliberate policy decisions. The Conservatives seek a return to the normalisation of cruelty, marginalisation, and inequality all wrapped up in a union flag and paeans to Vera Lynn and Dunkirk spirit. This is their normal that they tell us is our only option. Well it’s not. A better society is possible, a better Scotland is possible. Their normal does not have to be ours. If we’ve learned anything during this crisis, it’s that the British government cannot be trusted. Its repeated failures are not isolated incidents, they’re a part of a pattern of disdain and ignorant arrogance. Their priority is and always will be the wealth and privilege of the rich and powerful.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We can build a Scotland that’s founded on the dignity of ordinary people. We can create a Scotland based in the belief that we all have a collective responsibility for one another’s well being. We can construct a society that is founded in an understanding that the wealthy have an obligation to pay to support the society which creates that wealth for them. Because the real wealth creators are not the Richard Bransons sitting in their private islands in the Caribbean, they’re the factory workers, the supermarket shelf stackers, the bus drivers, the checkout operators, the taxi drivers, the shop workers, the bin collectors.
They tell us that coronavirus teaches that Scotland wouldn’t be able to afford to look after itself, but that’s a lie. As part of the UK Scotland will still have to pay for the borrowing that the UK government is doing. Those bailouts will be added to the share of the UK debt that Westminster allocates to Scotland and the interest payments added to the share of the UK deficit that Westminster allocates to Scotland. They will be used as yet another argument why Scotland is too poor. But one way or another, we’re going to pay. The real choice is to pay the British way without control over how the money is spent, or to pay in independence with choice and agency.
We should be investing Scotland’s immense natural and human resources into building a better Scotland for all her people. A Scotland that looks towards a post-oil future, a Scotland that’s blessed with enormous resources for clean energy, a Scotland that invests in the education of her young people, that looks after the vulnerable. All this is possible, but only if we live in a Scotland where the government can be held to account by the people. Because as a part of the British state, all that’s going to happen is that Boris Johnson and his pals will return us to the cruelty of inequality once the cruelty of coronavirus has passed.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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