Is This Really The Best We Can Do?

9 Sep

The State of Britain Today

In Britain we have some of the lowest pensions in Europe.

This means that people retire in the UK with relatively less support than people of retirement age living almost anywhere on the continent including places like Slovenia and Hungary.

That’s right, citizens living in almost any other EU member state, including some that Nigel Farage constantly reminds us resemble third world countries, get a better deal upon retirement than my grandparents.

In Britain there is widespread media coverage of a potential “crisis” when multinational corporations worth millions of pounds suffer a small drop in share price on a Monday and then stabilize on a Tuesday.

In Britain news that a graduate from St. Andrews University is expecting to give birth to her second child in less than 9 months time dominates the news agenda while the following paragraph can only be found buried in the middle pages of a UK newspaper:

“The coroner said that when David Clapson died he had no food in his stomach. Clapson’s benefits had been stopped as a result of missing one meeting at the job centre. He was diabetic, and without the £71.70 a week from his jobseeker’s allowance he couldn’t afford to eat or put credit on his electricity card to keep the fridge where he kept his insulin working. Three weeks later Clapson died from diabetic ketoacidosis, caused by a severe lack of insulin. A pile of CVs was found next to his body.”

In Britain 1/3 of all disabled adults aged between 25 and retirement age are living in poverty and – as that well known Scottish Nationalist Stephen Fry has tried to draw attention to – support for those who are likely to be under 25 and in education has just been cut further by the government in Westminster.

In response to criticism of this truly dire state of affairs, the official government line has consistently been that we live in an era of austerity politics in which cuts to public services are the norm because – in case you didn’t know – there simply is no alternative. We are in mountains of debt and we can’t afford better support for the disabled or pensions for the elderly.

But hang on a minute! Every other major nation in Europe is struggling with the same problems as Britain and yet they find the means to provide better support for those in need.

How do they manage it? Why are the masters of the British economy not privy to the same magic formula as those in office in places like Slovakia, Malta or Estonia? We don’t even need to take the often cited Scandinavian model as a comparison here to show just how bad things are in Britain. We are amongst worst in Europe for pensions and have one of the worst records on poverty amongst the disabled anywhere in the developed world.

Almost anything could be better.

And while I’m in the mood for asking questions, how come we have a growing economy and remain one of the world’s richest countries but can’t even begin to discuss alleviating the struggle faced by disabled people or impoverished pensioners for fear of being labelled “economically irresponsible?”

Surely that’s the bigger problem isn’t it? Extreme poverty amongst the most vulnerable people in society is one thing; but not having an opposition party in politics to even suggest they would reverse the cuts for fear of looking incompetent is even worse.

Is There Really No Such Thing as Society?

Societies should be judged on how well they treat and provide for their most vulnerable citizens.

I am not one of the Thatcher “there is no such thing as society” and “let us glory in our inequality” brigade.

I believe there is such a thing as society and, at present, ours must be judged as being fundamentally flawed.

If we are destined to live in an economic environment that requires an adaptable and flexible workforce, then those who are unable to participate in that economy for reasons out with their own control must be protected from a life of poverty and misery.

Just as everyone is expected to be flexible and adaptable in order to meet the demands of the modern economy, everyone is, in theory, equally at risk of being excluded by virtue of being human.

As a society, then, we can choose to take the collective decision to insure not only the most vulnerable in society, but all of us collectively, against this exclusion risk by democratically allocating our resources to help in times of need.

Alternatively, we can decide to accept that we live in a survival of the fittest world in which some people can cope with being excluded more than others (e.g. because they are in good health, they have been able to earn more money, they were born into a well off family etc.) and thus we should not bother ourselves with anything but our own immediate interests.

Nietzsche would phrase this, admittedly rather dramatically, as:

“All-too-many are born: for the superfluous the state was invented.”

HL Menken also offers us an insight into this kind of thinking:

“There must be a complete surrender to the law of natural selection – that invariable natural law which ordains that the fit shall survive and the unfit shall perish. All growth must occur at the top. The strong must grow stronger, and that they may do so, they must waste no strength in the vain task of trying to lift up the weak.”

At present, there can be little doubt that Britain is on a seemingly unstoppable path towards rampant individualism. Not only do we have some of the worst levels of state support in Europe for disabled people and pensioners, that level of support is being cut further WITHOUT protest from our nation’s main political parties.

The point is simply this: Britain no longer has the capacity to change. There is no appetite amongst the political classes in Britain to improve the truly dire conditions being faced by some of the most vulnerable people in society. Even the media have given up reporting on anything that deviates from the Westminster consensus. The government has announced that Billions of cuts are yet to come, many of which disproportionately affect the poor and the disabled, and the opposition just sits there and nods in agreement.

But there are of course alternatives. On pensions alone there are at least 20+ other ways of doing things in the European Union – each one of them better than Britain.

Is there an Alternative?

In Scotland we have a chance.

We have an opportunity to at least try something different and show those struggling across Britain that it doesn’t have to be like this.

While there are of course many arguments setting out how Scotland would be financially better off after independence, it is perhaps best to first look at statements made by those who oppose a Yes vote first.

On several occasions during the referendum campaign Alastair Darling, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Geroge Osborne, Danny Alexander and every other senior figure on the Better Together side have unambiguously stated that an independent Scotland would be economically successful. Of course, their fundamental belief is that Scotland would be better off in the UK and they are trying their best to illustrate why that is so; but none of them have ever suggested that Scotland would descend into the economic abyss.

But now consider the Yes argument too.

In addition to Scotland’s geographical share of oil and gas revenues, the Scottish Parliament in an independent Scotland would have full powers over, amongst other things: VAT, national insurance, corporation tax, fuel duties, inheritance tax, tobacco duties, interest and dividends, alcohol duties, vehicle excise duty, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, insurance premier tax, air passenger duty, betting and gaming duties, climate change levy, aggregates levy, the crown estates and the ability to issue government bonds.

And on top of all that, think about what could be done with:

– A properly tailored industrial policy to suit the specific needs of Scottish business and enterprise as opposed to one that is dominated by conditions in the South East of England.

– The wealth creating potential of renewable energies in Scotland and the investment opportunities that would come with having 25% of the entire EU’s wind energy potential and 10% of the entire EU’s tidal energy potential.

– A flourishing export industry driven by Scottish enterprises.

– Premier research and development facilities producing high levels of innovation.

– World class institutions of higher learning attracting some of the brightest minds from across the globe (Scotland has more universities in the world’s top 200 per head of population than any other nation on earth).

– A prosperous food and drink sector (Scotland is the world’s 3rd largest Salmon producer and exports 40 bottles of Whisky per second).

– A growing creative industries sector.

– The trade from tourism.

Reaching a Conclusion

Consider all of the above possibilities and many more and then ask yourself: does anybody seriously think that a Scottish Parliament with all those powers and possibilities would be incapable of doing a better job than those currently in Westminster when it comes to the most vulnerable people in society?

I’ll say it once more just to be sure: At present, pensions in Britain are amongst the worst in Europe. Support for the disabled is truly abysmal. The government and the opposition at Westminster are explicit in their intentions to keep both of these things that way.

The question therefore boils down to this: Do we choose, as a democratic society, to spend more of our collective time and resources on caring for the most vulnerable people in society, or should our priorities lie elsewhere?

The answer to that question after independence, of course, will rest with the electorate who will elect political parties to represent them based on their respective manifestos. Some might pledge greater support for vulnerable people in society, others might not. Some might propose an increase in taxation to fund pensions, others might not. Some might offer an enhanced winter fuel allowance for the elderly, others might not. Ultimately, the choice will lie solely with the people of Scotland and these issues will be openly contested across Scottish society.

The answer to the above question after a No vote, however, has already been given. There is no alternative. The Conservatives have committed to Billions of pounds more of cuts. The Labour Party has promised to match their cap on welfare and in some instances be “tougher on welfare than the Tories.”

Be in no doubt, then, that there will be a continuation of policies that have left disabled people and pensioners languishing at the bottom of the European league tables even if Labour wins next year.

Extra help for pensioners and the disabled will not be on offer at the 2015 general election.

Of course independence might not work, and of course there will be many great obstacles to overcome when trying to go it alone. I am under no illusions that voting for independence carries risks.

But it would be beyond foolish to believe that staying in the Union doesn’t also carry risks.

When our elected representatives have not only put us bottom of the league in Europe, but have also signaled their intention to cut support even further, how many people really think staying in the UK is likely to improve matters for pensioners and the disabled?

I would submit that it will not.

Independence gives the people of Scotland a chance to do things differently. Not because we want people to live a life of luxury from day one, but because we cannot tolerate some of the most vulnerable people in society being the WORST off in Europe any longer.

There may well be great problems faced when trying.

But the far greater tragedy will lie in not trying at all.

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