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IN THE topsy-turvy world that is Scottish politics we have a left that wants to leave the EU and stay in the UK, one that wants to leave the UK and stay in the EU, one that wants Brexit and independence, and another that wants to stay in both Europe and the UK.
Strangely, elements of the right have many of these positions too, albeit for different reasons.
This adds complications to the false agenda of “nationalism” against “unionism” in Scotland since the independence referendum which has served to divert from the debate on austerity, public service cuts, and ultra-centralisation of government. That means our Brexit debate has the added dimension of another independence referendum (which, to be fair, comes up in any political debate in Scotland these days).
Heroic attempts at debate about EU barriers to state aid for industry and nationalisation, the immediate economic effects of Brexit irrespective of the deal, or the fate of fellow EU citizens who form an essential part of our communities and economy, get some press coverage – in the latter case due to welcome supportive statements from the Scottish government – but the discourse rarely escapes some reference to “Indyref2.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says Brexit has “materially strengthened” the case for Scottish Independence. There is an oddness in a position that wants to break away from the austerity imposed from Westminster in order to maintain the austerity inherent in the EU neoliberal agenda.
Herein lies the problem faced by those on the left, like Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, who are trying to focus on what we could be doing now to reverse or mitigate the damage caused by austerity with the powers we already have.
Without that focus, if Brexit goes ahead with or without a deal, we will still have poverty, regressive taxation, and sadly xenophobia and racism won’t go away. Just as if Brexit were to be reversed we would still have poverty, regressive taxation, and sadly xenophobia and racism won’t go away.
Which brings me back to the argument my union Unison put strongly in the debate about devolution and then independence. It is not just about the powers you want, it is what you will do with them.
So far, there has been precious little evidence of using the powers we have to address austerity. For example, local government in Scotland has been cut to shreds. With further cuts announced recently, both CoSLA and Audit Scotland say funding is not enough to maintain vital public services.
Most health and social care partnerships cannot hope to maintain essential social care services, let alone respond to growing need. Core services cannot escape cuts as all the salami-slicing has already been done.
The Scottish government claims that it is putting more money in but this is roundly contradicted by facts like cuts in Edinburgh for the coming year soaring from £28 million to £41m after the funding settlement was announced, with another £106m to follow. A cut that the local Unison branch is calling “the silent slaughter of local services” with 300 jobs to go on top of the 1,000 already lost.
Any money the Scottish government claims to be putting in tends to be in the form of centrally controlled ring-fenced short-term funding for pet projects which act against the ability to plan strategically (and efficiently) to respond to need in the longer term.
The Scottish Parliament Information Centre’s own figures show that funding for local government has been cut by 7.1 per cent over the last five years, while the Scottish government’s revenue budget has only has reduced by 1.8 per cent.
A key statistic that exposes the failure to attack austerity is the shameful rise in child poverty, up from 21 per cent in Scotland in 2011 to one in four – 230,000 children – living in poverty in 2017. This is predicted to rise to 34.5 per cent by 2020/21. Two thirds of these children live in working households. Shelter says there are 14,000 homeless children in temporary accommodation.
This rise is not inevitable. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were substantial falls in poverty driven by supportive policies and a rise in employment. In short, policies create child poverty and policies can reduce it if there is a will to use those powers.
So what has this got to do with Brexit? Brexit, or indeed the freedoms envisaged by Lexit, will only bring benefits if we succeed in electing a government willing to use the powers to rebuild industry, tackle poverty and enact progressive policies. Otherwise all we will get is a government freed up to impose even more regressive policies unrestrained in a dive to the bottom.
The same goes for staying in the EU. It would hinder progressive policies in the UK but that only becomes an issue if we have a government actually willing to enact progressive policies – and perhaps even attempt to challenge the EU from within.
That is why, above all else, the priority needs to be winning a general election and getting a government prepared to use and indeed create the powers to bring real change. Without that, the rest is at risk of bordering on the academic.
John Stevenson is chair of the Unison Scotland communications and campaigns committee.
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