I left school in 2006 at the end of 5th year, spent two years studying sound production at my local college before, eventually, moving to Glasgow at 21 to study History. Northern Rock collapsed mid-way through my college course, the first bank to fall at the start of a global collapse of the financial system. By the time I finished college, the chances of a job in my chosen field were little better than hopeless.
For a year, the best I managed was to turn my weekend job in retail into a full-time one. At least, it felt like full-time – I worked six days a week, but almost all of my shifts were three- or four-hour stints in the afternoon which meant that most of my week was taken up by a minimum-wage job on part-time hours. Other jobs seemed non-existent.
The frustration at being able to find meaningful work led me to go back into education, studying History at the University of Glasgow. I graduated last year, with a respectable 2:1, and went into a job market that felt no better than the one I’d gone to university to escape. I narrowly avoided staying on for a postgraduate, having been offered an outbound sales job in a call-centre on a contract that would have seen me work six days a week giving me – just – enough to fund myself through a part-time Masters. Keeping that job was dependent on meeting sales targets.
Compared to many of my peers I have been lucky. I have never been unemployed, and I was lucky enough to find full-time work a few months after graduation. But, like anyone in their mid-twenties or late teens, I have come of age amongst a global economic crisis. For years jobs have been scarce, and where they existed they were often low-paid and insecure. Many skilled and intelligent graduates are working in service jobs, if they are working at all, and those who can afford to leave their family home often face extortionate rents and unscrupulous landlords. Owning a home, a central aspiration for our parents generation, looks impossible to many.
The challenges faced by my generation are the inevitable result of an economic and political system that has, for decades, actively worked against the interests of ordinary people. In pursuit of short-term growth spurts and the accumulation of private wealth, our priorities have become warped. While we pack into cities desperate for a better life, the super-rich live amongst us, wealthier than ever.
We need to change something. For me, independence is an opportunity to make life better for those who live here. There are great opportunities immediately on offer: an ethical foreign policy; a humane and welcoming system of immigration and asylum; democratic reform; a written constitution; the removal of nuclear weapons. But none are more important than improving life as most people most often experience it: in their employment, in their housing, in their public services, and in their ability to provide for themselves and their families.
I’m tired of politics that tinkers at the edges of societal problems. It is in our collective power to change our world. So let’s be ambitious – in an independent Scotland I want to end poverty. Anything less than such ambition will see familiar failures repeated.
First, we need jobs – jobs that are meaningful, well-paying and secure. Second, we need to ensure that people have a home worth the name – with affordable rents and bills, secure tenancies and decent living conditions. And third, we need to make sure that the welfare state adequately supports those who, for whatever reason, are unable to work. These demands are simple. Without a transformational break with the current political system, they seem utterly unachievable.
There remains in Scotland a stubborn level of poverty and deprivation. The economic downturn and subsequent austerity has had a devastating impact on many, with the shocking growth of food-banks testament to the struggle of the unemployed and working-poor. Welfare ‘reform’, a suitably bland euphemism for a particularly vicious assault on the welfare-state, has had a tragic focus on those unfit to work through physical or mental disability. The stories of extremely vulnerable people driven to suicide, or those close to death being informed they are fit for work and not eligible for state support, are sadly too numerous to mention.
But even beyond the poorest sections of society, where life was not easy even before the crash, the impact of growing inequality is being sharply felt. Many children of middle-class families are unsure how they are supposed to achieve the standard of living they expect.
The young, without an obvious route to the standard of living enjoyed by their parents, are living at the sharp end of an economic catastrophe. But the problems facing my generation are only a microcosm of the problems facing our society as a whole. Growing inequality, the devaluing of a days pay, the lack of access to affordable housing, insecure work, the retreat of the welfare-state and a sense of alienation from the political structures that govern us are issues that affect huge swathes of the population.
The crash of 2008 was more than just the result of the reckless actions of a few investment bankers. It was the inevitable result of a political and economic system that has for decades moved power from the many to the few and prioritised the interests of the rich over the interests of the working- and middle-classes.
This trend has been international – but Britain, with an unimaginably archaic political system and an overly centralised economy, has been poorly placed to deliver the necessary progressive change. As the Radical Independence Campaign have pointed out, Britain ranks poorly on a wide range of indicators of success as a state: Britain has the second lowest pay amongst advanced economies; we work the third longest hours in the EU; we have the third highest housing costs in Europe; the highest rail prices; the least happy children in the developed world and some of the worst child poverty of any industrialised country; we have the greatest regional inequality in Europe and a wealth gap twice as wide as any other EU country.
In these circumstances Scotland’s referendum on independence offers more than a switch of legal citizenship. Independence offers an escape from a UK state that is far from normal – it is, by the standard of comparable countries, particularly centralised, backwards and undemocratic. By just about any measure Britain is failing us.
My desire to see an independent Scotland is fundamentally about a desire to see a Scotland where ordinary people have a higher standard of living, where wealth and power are shared more equally, and where the extremes of poverty, deprivation and disease that plague many of our communities are finally eradicated. I believe a Yes vote in September followed by a wide-ranging and determined effort to tackle these social ills is the greatest chance of seeing the change we need within my lifetime.
There are parts of Scotland where poverty is endemic; where people are disproportionately suffering at the sharp end of deprivation and austerity. This is not only a continuing tragedy but unforgivable. A concentrated and committed effort is required to tackle this deprivation, which is not only a deprivation of economic status but a people deprived of hope and of control over their own lives. Regeneration should not be in the form of urban clearance or ‘gentrification’, but of improving the economic fortunes of existing communities, the availability of high-quality, affordable housing, and a greater access to economic and educational opportunity.
But this is the strategy for the minority of the most deprived (although in parts of Glasgow this minority is substantive enough that almost half of children raised in poverty). Scotland needs a greater transformation in work and wages. We need a transformation that sees better working conditions, higher wages and an end to insecure and poorly regarded jobs. There is no reason in a country this wealthy that workers should be left uncertain about whether their next payslip will cover their bills or whether they’ll be needed in work next week.
Inequality is not an abstract problem. Inequality is a problem for all of us – average wages have been stagnant for decades while the wealth of the richest has shot upwards in an absolutely exceptional manner. Everyone from the single mother to the public sector professional to the skilled worker is worse off than they need to be, and worse off than they would be in a more equal country. Their potential income has been taken by a system skewed towards the interests of the 1%.
We have the potential to provide high-skilled jobs on a mass scale. The renewables industry is often pointed to as having the potential to re-industrialise Scotland, and there is doubtless huge potential here not only for technical jobs but for Scotland to be at the cutting-edge of energy technology and research. But even beyond this one field, we’re well placed with a world-class education system and existing industries to increase our ability to provide high-paid jobs in science, technology, research, engineering, the creative industries, tourism and beyond. A national investment bank, or a network of regional investment banks, would allow the state to directly support nascent industry without depending on big finance. This would also provide scope for supporting alternative business models, such as co-operatives and community-ownership.
But the higher ends of industry can only provide employment for so many. We are absolutely dependent on others, such as those in service industries, retail and both paid- and unpaid-carers, which are often poorly regarded career paths. It does no good to anyone for these jobs to be poorly thought of, but the esteem of these positions can only improve when they are treated as careers and not jobs – and this can only come with secure employment, good working conditions and a fair wage. And only with a fair wage for those in work can we tackle inequality.
Which is why a central ambition I have for an independent Scotland is to see the minimum wage be replaced by a living wage and for it to be paid to all workers. The living wage is defined as the minimum income necessary for a full-time worker to meet the costs of living – anything beneath this is poverty pay.
The Scottish Living Wage is £7.65 per hour as of April 2014. In contrast, the national minimum-wage will rise to £6.50 in October 2014 for those aged 21 and over while, shockingly, the rate will be only £5.13 for 18 to 20 year olds and a pitiful £3.79 for 16 and 17 year olds. The failure of the minimum-wage to keep up with the cost of living means that it’s real value has fallen by 8.1% since 2008.
The Scottish Government currently guarantees the living wage for all public sector workers. The white paper on independence commits a re-elected SNP Government to raising the minimum-wage at least in line with inflation, while encouraging the adoption of the living-wage as widely as possible. This is a good start. But we can be more ambitious. A series of above-inflation rises to the minimum-wage could establish a universal living-wage within a single parliamentary term. If the living-wage was maintained from then on this would fundamentally alter the wage-structure of the Scottish economy – guaranteeing that full-time work always provided a decent standard of living.
There is need, too, to rein in the excesses of high-pay for those in executive and senior management positions. Progress towards this can be made by increasing the role of the workforce in decision-making and by easing the undemocratic restrictions on trade-union activity. But pushing wages up at the bottom is the surest way to reverse the trend of increasing inequality and stagnant wages, and there is an irresistible economic argument that doing so would improve our economy as a whole.
A living-wage would lessen dependence on credit and increase disposable income, boosting the total consumer demand in the economy. This boost in demand would go some way to compensating businesses which faced increased staffing costs. But economic activity dependent on the ability to pay poverty-wages is damaging and unjust. There is no need for resource-rich Scotland to specialise in low-paying jobs, and creating a high-pay economy would force future Scottish Government’s to focus economic policy on high-skilled jobs, export industries, and wealth-importing sectors such as tourism and the creative industries. This shift in economic focus would be complemented by ensuring that policy did not reward rent-seeking activity, such as the introduction of significant taxes on wealth and a radical reform of land ownership.
The high cost of housing, particularly in urban areas, is a failure of the market to provide affordable homes. There should be a concerted effort to build desirable, high-quality social-housing, giving a boost to the construction industry while providing an alternative to the private rental market. Should this fail to reverse the eye-watering rise in the cost of housing, alternative market interventions should be used.
There is an irony that opponents of independence often point to the British welfare state as an example of what can be achieved as part of the union. The irony, of course, is that within the union the welfare state is under an ideological assault under the guise of austerity. Even Labour, who make this argument most often, have barely opposed welfare reform, focusing on the relatively popular issue of the Bedroom Tax while voting for an arbitrary cap on welfare-spending.
The independence movement appears to be the last great defence of the post-war welfare model. With the exception of Plaid Cymru in Wales, no major political party is as unreservedly and unapologetically supportive of the welfare-state as the SNP. In government, the SNP have committed to universalism in provision of public services and have committed to reversing the privatisation of postal services after independence. The Scottish Government’s white paper on independence discusses the potential of welfare as a social investment – “an investment across a person’s life that is designed at all stages to promote equality, fairness and social cohesion”.
Critics of the SNPs universalist instincts argue that the money spent on providing public services for free to all would be better spent targeted at the poorest while instituting charges for those who can afford them. Not only does this argument ignore the significant costs and inefficiency of setting up a bureaucracy to manage means-testing, it is a hopelessly unambitious view of what role the state can play. The NHS and comprehensive schools are shining beacons of the benefits of universalism. As well as serving as common institutions which bring people together, the universal nature of health and education acts as the best protection these services can imagine. While some of the well-off may opt-out and use private education and healthcare, the overwhelming majority use, or have used, these public services, which gives them a level of political protection well beyond what compartmentalised, means-tested services could expect. And this is before we consider the psychological impact of forcing the poorest to queue for a free school dinner ticket.
Britain’s low-pay economy does raise legitimate concerns with the current working of the welfare-state, however. Huge amounts of money are spent on working tax-credits and housing benefit, which essentially act as subsidies to employers and landlords. While well-intentioned, these benefits keep wages artificially low and rents artificially high.
A shift away from low-paid work would reduce spending on these areas, allowing the Government to focus on spending where it matters. The ideal welfare-state should support people into work, ensure a decent standard-of-living and guard against inequality and alienation. The right to dignity and security should be enshrined into the written constitution of an independent Scotland, ensuring that the unemployed and disabled have a right to the provision of welfare sustaining an acceptable standard of living.
The late Stephen Maxwell wrote in 1981’s ‘The Case For Left-Wing Nationalism’ that:
“The Edinburgh advocate in his New Town flat and the Glasgow bus driver in a Red Road high rise may share a sentimental attachment to Scotland on the football field or athletics track and feel a similar irritation when ‘England’ is used for ‘Britain’ by TV newsreaders. But in their everyday concerns – their jobs, their incomes, their hopes for their children, their anxieties about retirement, the quality of their housing, their health – they might as well live in different countries. When Nationalists talk of Scotland the nation they must expect the questions: whose nation? What kind of Scotland?”
Independence offers us a transformative moment. A break from the failing Westminster consensus, and the process of nation-building driven by the progressive ambitions of the independence movement, has the potential to truly change lives of ordinary Scots.
But the Scotland we vote into existence in September will not, automatically, be a workers Scotland or a Scotland free of poverty. We must remember, now and in the future, to repeat Maxwell’s challenge: whose nation? What kind of Scotland?
Note: Since this essay was written, the Scottish Government’s Expert Working Group on Welfare have recommended that the national minimum wage be increased over several years to match the Living Wage after independence. The Scottish Government have expressed sympathy although not yet confirmed whether they will adopt this policy, but it is an excellent indication of where the direction of political debate is going and an example of the real, tangible gains independence can offer ordinary working people.
Dan Paris is National Collective’s Political Editor and an SNP activist. Dan was brought up in Perth and has since lived in Glasgow and Edinburgh.