Why ‘equality’ will be hard to achieve even after we have independence

MY week’s postbag brought two letters from readers to which I would like to give a reply, but I’m afraid they were on widely differing subjects.

Paddy Farrington of Edinburgh wrote in to say Scotland’s role in the slavery of the 18th century must be laid bare before we can build a better future; that is, before we can recognise how much the wealth of our elites and wider society was owed to the horrible human traffic across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Caribbean sugar plantations.

And then P Keightley of Glasgow contributed to a debate which I have been trying to stir up for a long time, about equality in Scotland and what exactly we mean by it, indeed what we possibly can mean by it in a social situation we have not created as an act of will. Instead, that situation has been thrust on us by long-term economic and political trends often originating elsewhere, in places and at the hands of people who know nothing and care less about the living standards that result on the ground in this country.

I can hardly make a single column of this pair of disparate themes, so I’ll choose equality for my subject today – with apologies to Paddy and a promise I’ll return sometime soon to Henry Dundas and all that.

In earlier pieces, I’ve complained that in Scotland we deal with equality, often praised as an integral part of a national system of values, as if there were really nothing much to talk about.

Equality has often been said to lie deeply rooted in our history, our religion, our educational tradition and so on. If, by occasional accident, we fall short of the ideal it is supposed to represent, we can compensate by continuing to proclaim its importance to us. One of these days, the world will come right and then we will have our equality. Perhaps this will be the day of Scottish independence.

But I fear it will not be as simple as that. Keightley refers to a previous column of mine in which I forecast that “an independent Scotland will without doubt be a capitalist nation”. I said so because, given our position in the geography and economic structure of the Western world, I don’t really see how we could be anything else.

If we wanted in future to leave the UK for the EU, for example, it would need to be as a capitalist nation, because the EU is explicitly, by the Treaty of Amsterdam 1997, a capitalist endeavour. The main alternative in the real world is the Venezuela model, a revolutionary one, and I can’t see douce wee Scotland opting for that – Glasgow or Dundee just about, maybe, but never Edinburgh or Aberdeen.

In a different form, Keightley also uses this kind of contextualised argument for himself, insisting that any country will find itself faced with inescapable choices implying certain inevitable results: “Unchecked, reckless capitalism leads to extremes of poverty, exploitation, ill health, crime and drugs and dreadful pollution – that we cannot afford!”

But it is no easy matter to argue that socialism is the diametric opposite to this. Not only on the giant scale of the former Soviet bloc but also in the municipal pettiness of the west of Scotland, socialism has also been a system that creates its own freeloading elites and buries market signals beneath a blanket of central planning.

Thank heaven the widespread takeover by the SNP has banished such behaviour (if not yet right down to the last expense account). It goes to show how, without eternal vigilance, capitalist sins can reappear where we least expect them, even in the midst of socialism. They are too close to human nature.

More positively, there seem to be other areas where even champions of capitalism share common ground with fellow travellers who are far from being hardliners. They almost resemble a religion in the way they tend to split up in a range of sects with different priorities.

THE Anglo-American sort of capitalism, to which Scotland belongs by the duress of the Union, is laissez-faire, “do as you like”, in the purest form it appears today. In northern Europe the system is often anchored in elaborate national welfare frameworks. In southern Europe there will be imperfect imitations in bulging bumbling polities of double-dealing.

Otherwise, a long historical tradition of thriving city states is today represented by Singapore and Hong Kong. In Chinese capitalism, the ruling party is everywhere, while in Indian capitalism no ruling party is anywhere, just chaos instead, yet a chaos that is enriching millions.

In this creative bedlam, equality is surely one of the hardest things to maintain. I say that not as any kind of moral judgment but as a simple, empirical observation of the facts. Equality is, for example, one of the aims of the Scottish Government, and Nicola Sturgeon often stresses how close it is to the hearts of herself and her colleagues. The fact we have made little progress towards their kind of equality, whatever it is, does not seem to bother them one bit. They feel morally vindicated by continuing to proclaim it as their aim.

What exactly is the problem in Scotland? We’re a small country that ought to be easily adaptable, yet we have a poor rate of economic growth, which falls behind even the mediocre UK growth rate.

The Scottish Government does not worry about this much, probably because it regards economic growth as ultimately damaging to the environment, and so a negation of itself. If we can avoid the damage, then a little lower growth may be worth the sacrifice.

The trouble is that, after independence, we will have an expensive structure of public spending to sustain out of our own resources. The government could deal with this by raising taxes, but has so far found this course too unpopular to contemplate to any great extent.

Or it could start to cut its expenditure back to a level it will more likely be able to afford – but from everything it says or does we can assume it would be even more reluctant to do that.

A third possibility is to find means of raising the nation’s economic growth rate, surely desirable after the long period of stagnation. Most Western countries embracing this choice would start by cutting taxes for individuals and corporations. A greater part of their income would then be retained by taxpayers to consume and by corporations to invest, so embarking on the classic route to economic growth as we have seen it in action across many European countries since the fall of Communism in 1990.

The trouble is that this sort of policy will, while making the whole of Scotland richer, also widen inequalities within it. But that is the sort of dilemma that every mature economy has to face from time to time. We have seen all the former Communist countries face it, most of them successfully. Electorates at length see that economic policy extends beyond the pork-barrel.

Inequality becomes more tolerable if it has a clear and socially useful purpose, such as paying people for their understanding, ability or hard work. Equality becomes less tolerable if it is merely a part of dead socialist dogma.

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