If you were a black South African living in apartheid-era South Africa and transported forward in time to 21st century South Africa you would be forgiven for thinking the same regime was still in place just by looking at the relentless poverty around you. The great failure of Mandela and the ANC was their inability to grasp that racism and segregation was only part of the problem. What had to change, in order to help eradicate poverty in South Africa, and crucially what did not, was a different economic model to the one championed by F. W. de Klerk’s government.
This explains why so many South Africans still live in abject poverty despite years of affirmative action and the dominance of the ANC over the political landscape. Replacing white European leaders with black South African leaders has not changed anything economically for ordinary men and women in the Rainbow Nation.
Gandhi understood in his quest for Indian home rule that it was not enough for the British Ruling class to be replaced with an Indian ruling class if nothing was going to change for ordinary Indians. He envisioned a new political and economic system, something different to offer the people, otherwise what was the point? What was the benefit to the people if all that changed was the colour of skin of the politicians?
It is imperative that the YES movement understands this point. Full democracy is worth the fight for Independence by itself. Few things are as precious in a well-functioning State as a political class that is directly accountable to its people. However, the economic model we use in an independent Scotland will be just as important. Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation has realized the importance of this and produced a brilliant vision of what the future of this country can be. The SNP have produced the White Paper demonstrating their vision of Scotland post-independence (I hope The Scottish Labour Party will produce a document if we get a YES vote).
Both of these blueprints offer a more socially democratic alternative to the neo-liberal agenda of the Westminster parties.
Why is this important? The neo-liberal experiment, with its relentless privatisations of public services, has been a complete failure. Specifically, it has been a failure for the majority of the population. The top 10% of the wealthiest in society have done extremely well out of this system and when the next recession hits, those people are always able to move their wealth out of the country.
The UK is not a well-functioning state. We are now the 3rd most unequal developed country in terms of income inequality; we have the 2nd lowest minimum wage in the developed world, one of the least generous pensions in Europe and some of the highest childcare costs. According to the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee there has been a staggering 400% rise in people using food banks in 2013/14 compared to 2012/13 in Scotland. The Westminster Government’s reaction: denial of the problem.
Societies with high levels of inequality are not known for being pleasant, harmonious places to live in. On the contrary, inequality breeds anger, often at other groups of vulnerable people who are not to blame.
It is a sad reflection of the UK how the media and political class have come to treat the poorest and most vulnerable. It has become almost socially acceptable to demonise immigrants, the poor and those claiming benefits. The perception being fed to working and middle class people by the Media is all of our taxes are being channeled to those groups of people to fund a lavish lifestyle. It is curious agenda considering that The Rowntree Foundation has produced research demonstrating that the welfare state costs the UK around £2 -3 billion a year compared with tax evasion by Britain’s wealthiest to be around £64 billion. The Rowntree Foundation have also produced more recent data showing that high levels of racism lead to higher poverty levels,
“Poverty isn’t just bad for those experiencing it, it costs the whole country. Child poverty alone costs the UK around £29 billion per year. Lost taxes and more need for services and benefits mean that poverty loses the country money that we can ill afford to do without.”
In a brilliant set of experiments in India, low caste and high caste children were asked to solve puzzles, with monetary rewards for success. When they were asked to do so anonymously, there was no cast difference in performance. But when the low caste and high caste were in a mixed group where the low caste individuals were known to be low caste (they knew it and they knew that others knew it), low caste performance was much lower than that of the high caste.
The experiment highlighted the importance of social perceptions: low caste individuals some-how absorbed into their own reality the belief that they were inferior – but only so in the presence of those who held that belief.
To put it another way: people act as they think the society they live in expects them to act.
What we take from these experiments is the relentless attacks on the poor and the vulnerable only lead to more poor and vulnerable people. As well as the questionable morality of treating people this way there are sound economic reasons why this is counter-productive to a well-functioning society. The Nobel Economic Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, has emphasised in his work the importance of low levels of income inequality and why this leads to a stable, well performing economy and societies that are less divided.
Independence gives us an opportunity to create a better country and economic model, one in which we treat people better than we do now and be financially better off. In Scotland we have the talent, vision and drive to build a better country. The scraps of devolution only limit and prevent us. What is missing is full powers in our own hands to achieve this.
All we have to do on the 18th September is vote YES.