The Independence referendum is a vote on Scotland’s potential and the benefits of controlling our own affairs. It is also a vote on Westminster’s record. When we examine that record, we find that Westminster isn’t working. It isn’t working economically. It isn’t working to build a fair society. It isn’t working to build a safer world. Spin doctors in London plan to commission 13 reports to stop Independence. They hope to make people feel uncertain and afraid. The reality is that many serious problems already exist within the UK – and Westminster is failing to address them.
Here are 13 reasons why Westminster has failed:
1) Asylum Policy
Westminster treats asylum seekers with contempt. Excused by xenophobia in the right-wing press, asylum seekers are victimised in several ways. They are not allowed to work. They receive a paltry £43.94 per week. 74% of asylum requests to the UK are rejected. Rejected claimants are forced into deprivation, as while waiting for appeals they receive even less support. ‘Dawn raids’ by the UK Border Agency have been widely criticised for their use of force and lack of humanity. Asylum seekers and their children are still imprisoned in detention centres. Child detention ended at Dungavel in Scotland after public pressure; however Yarlswood in England continues to imprison children. Unity in the Community in Glasgow campaign against this and are great source of further information. It is truly shameful that a wealthy nation treats the most vulnerable with such contempt.
The UK has a growing problem with homelessness. Rough sleeping has recently increased by a further 23%. Reasons for this include a desperate housing shortage and a lack of support for drugs and alcohol rehabilitation. At least 5% of homelessness victims served in the British Army. The UK Government has not helped. Begging was first criminalised under the ‘Vagrancy Act’ of 1824 – spurred by the influx of poor soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. In 2012 it criminalised squatting. These are the desperate consequences of homelessness and poverty. This is compounded by the £10 billion cut in welfare from next April, especially in Housing benefit. Homelessness has surged in the past year. The Government has turned further away from those in desperate poverty.
3) Tax Havens
The UK supports some of the world’s most profligate tax havens. These allow the richest corporations and individuals to avoid paying fair domestic tax rates. The British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Jersey are all British territories. The Cayman Islands alone contains over 80,000 companies paying 0% direct tax. (It’s population is only 52,000) When a tiny elite avoid their social responsibilities everyone else loses. Small businesses in the UK are burdened with higher levels of tax, as they can’t afford to evade the law offshore. The public lose out as funding for education, healthcare and welfare dries up. The UK is complicit in breaking this social contract that should exist between business, the government and the people. This makes it very difficult for other countries in Europe to take action against tax evasion. The UK undercuts their efforts contributing to a mammoth $21 trillion “black hole in the global economy.”
4) Nuclear Weapons
The UK is one of 9 nations who possess weapons of mass destruction. The UK Trident system is capable of killing at least 225 million civilians. It costs the taxpayer 2 billion pounds a year. Since the destruction of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, global efforts have sought to limit and control the spread of nuclear weapons. Today, at a time when nuclear proliferation is being contained, the UK plans to dump another generation of missiles on the Clyde. Despite widespread criticism of the £100 billion price tag & moral objections from the United Nations, Tory-Labour both support it. Even Michael Portillo, the former Tory Defence Secretary, recently described Trident as past its sell by date, dependent on the U.S., a poor deterrent and a waste of money spent to prop up national prestige. What civilised nation depends upon missiles of mass destruction to further its role in the world?
5) Arms Deals to Dictatorships
The UK is at the centre of the arms industry. It has 10 of the world’s biggest arms companies. These companies export military equipment to nations with horrific human rights records. Recent cases include selling weapons to Gadaffi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt, for crackdowns on protesters in Bahrain, during the civil war in Sri Lanka & the ‘Operation Cast Lead’ bombing of Gaza by Israel. One of the UK’s closest arms deals is with Saudi Arabia despite its record of stoning women and repressing its people. The UK Government supports these contracts. In 2010, 10,850 arms licenses were granted. Only 230 were refused. That year the UK sold arms to 16 nations that its own Foreign Office recognised as abusing human rights. Westminster has a special department called the ‘UKTI DSO’ to help sell weapons abroad. In the past three years the UK has used £2.1 billion of taxpayers money to subsidise arms exports.
6) Oligarchy not democracy
Power in the UK is centralised within a small elite. Its entire political system is unaccountable to the wishes of the people. The House of Lords is unelected after 100 years of failed reforms. It still contains grandsons of rich Lords, friends of Prime Ministers’ and church bishops. The Westminster voting system allows governments to win majorities without wide public support. The Head of State inherits her position through hereditary privilege. Access to politicians has been bought through lobbying. Local and regional government has been decimated. Civil liberties and freedoms have been undercut in the absence of a written constitution. Such concentration of power in the hands of the few has eroded public trust. The UK is no model of democracy.
7) Inequality and Child Poverty
The UK is the 4th most unequal nation in the developed world. This is getting worse. It has been getting worse for 30 years under all shades of Westminster government. Those at the top have seen their pay skyrocket, while those at the bottom have seen their pay stagnate. Research demonstrates that unequal societies suffer. The Equality Trust found that social ills such as crime, ill health, poor education, suicide, unwanted pregnancy and distrust rise in unequal societies. The UK also continues to have one of the worst rates of child poverty among developed nations. This leads to wide inequalities of life expectancy, education levels, employment rates and satisfaction levels in later life. In the words of Chris Hedges, this creates “two universes: one where everyone got chance after chance after chance, where connections and money and influence almost guaranteed that you would not fail; the other where no one ever got a second try. I learned at an early age that when the poor fall no one picks them up, while the rich stumble and trip their way to the top.”
8) Financial Regulation & Debt
The UK had some of the weakest financial regulations before the financial crisis. Yet the UK continues to block financial reform in Europe. Major EU countries including France & Germany are agreed on the ‘Tobin Tax’. This small measure asks financial corporations to pay back a fraction of their profits and bailout funds to help fund social programs and limit austerity cuts. The UK Government blocked it. Laisse-faire capitalism extends from the top to the bottom of the financial system. ‘Pay day loans’ – which charge excessive APR rates to desperate clients – are tightly regulated in most of Europe and North America. In contrast the UK Government has blocked calls for regulation. Meanwhile UK personal debt stands at £1,456 trillion.
For 30 years Westminster has moved public, social goods into private ownership. This included British Telecom, British Gas & British Rail. Recently privatisation has expanded to welfare provision, increasing sections of the NHS and even policing! Services have not been run better. Instead the UK now has the most expensive rail network in Europe with lower standards; the highest energy costs, while companies take away billions in profits. Private companies drive down costs and lower standards whether they are running a prison or cleaning a hospital ward. Privatisation is ideological. It aims to hollow out the welfare state. It aims to undermine collective goals and replace them with individual transactions. Westminster’s model has led to a fractured society, where ‘possessive individualism’ is cherished by the fortunate and bemoaned by the unfortunate who suffer from its consequences.
10) Anti-Trade Union Laws
The UK has some of the most regressive trade union laws in the developed world. Trade Unions are tightly controlled in terms of expressing their right to strike action and freedom to represent their members. Unions can play a crucial role in negotiating fair settlements, encouraging worker innovation and ensuring worker and public safety, yet in the UK they have been disempowered. This environment makes unions hostile to the government. If Unions have no input into policy everyone suffers. An imbalance of power between labour (Unions) and capital (investors/employers) has damaged market relations. Westminster’s trade union laws bear some responsibility for that.
11) Treatment of the disabled
ATOS work trials have led to a crisis of public confidence in the UK welfare system. Westminster has led a crack-down on Employment Support Allowance. This year ATOS will begin a second crack-down on Disability Living Allowance. Thousands of disability claimants have been forced through a bureaucratic nightmare. ATOS – the private company contracted to reduce claims and meet ‘exclusion targets’ – has faced criticism for its heavy handed approach to welfare checks. Disabled people have faced continuous assessment over prolonged periods. 30% of those excluded from ESA have been re-instated on appeal. The numbers are much higher for those who receive the correct legal support. This process creates anxiety and uncertainty, especially for those who face several trials. The stress and fear for people who already have to cope with difficult and often isolated lives can be severe. This has led to serious consequences. Heightened incidences of suicide have been linked to Westminster’s trial system. This is reprehensible.
12) Austerity Policy
Westminster, in response to the debt incurred by the financial crisis, has led the austerity drive. Darling & Osborne focused on cutting public spending yet instead of balancing the books this has only created more debt. The economy has slumped into stagnation. Business confidence is down. People aren’t spending. Banks aren’t lending. Westminster has killed growth. Osborne’s budget follows the plans set out by Alasdair Darling. This included vast cuts in capital expenditure (building programs). It also included no reform of taxation, despite the fact that it was a slump in taxation that cause the growth in the deficit. The UK is set to remain on this financial plan well into the next decade, with all its dangerous economic and social consequences.
13) War & Foreign Policy
The UK has continuously been at war since 1962. In reverse order this involves conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, the Balkans, Iraq (again), the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Oman, Dhofar, Aden and Borneo. Each intervention has its own circumstances. However, the UK’s role in the world is one which supports the use of force and has on many occasions rejected the role of the United Nations. This is most evident throughout Britain’s imperialist history and most recently in the War on Iraq, which killed at least 100,000 civilians. UK Foreign Policy favours powerful nations. It wishes to retain its veto over international affairs as part of the UN Security Council. This grants power to the five most prosperous or powerful states in the world: U.S.A, China, Russia, France and the UK. This exists to the detriment of global cooperation. In events of humanitarian catastrophe – such as the Rwandan genocide – the UN was powerless to act without unanimous Security Council support. Last month the UK refused to support the Palestinian application for ‘observer state’ status, contrary to 138 nations who voted the motion through.
This is a wake up call to anyone in Scotland who thinks we are ‘OK with the UK’: the Westminster political class has failed. In the midst of grave, serious injustices, we cannot settle for a shallow debate on Independence. We cannot settle for a debate over identity, history and flags. We cannot settle for attempts to manufacture a smooth transition between one unequal state and another unequal tartan state. Supporters of the Union must answer for these failures; but supporters of Independence must do more than provide justified criticism. It is not enough – as I have done here – to highlight the enduring and systematic flaws of the Westminster system. We need evidence that an independent Scotland will be better. It can be, yet this is a huge challenge. It requires a change in thinking. We need to build alternative policies in these 13 areas and in many others. I believe it is possible. We must begin now.
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Photograph: Sean Anderson, moniker42.com
Taken at ‘Royal Jubilee’ Kelvingrove Party, Glasgow 29/04/11.