JIM SILLARS on why independence and a left Holyrood challenge is essentialAusterity is a socioeconomic envelope which, for those in it, means low wages, zero hours contracts, constant anxiety about meeting energy bills, being skint early in the month, sanctioned and made destitute when jobless, and recourse to food banks to feed the children. For all bar the rich, it means cuts in the public services. These are the most obvious effects and consequences, but there is another factor of austerity with long term implications for the kind of society we have known—a severe and permanent reduction in the role of the state in the economy and, above all, in the welfare system that protects the citizen from the full consequences of the wounds that life can inflict.
There are two kinds of wounds that people can suffer from. One, the state can do nothing to prevent: a family hurled into grief by an unexpected early death, death or injury by accidents, the loss by a child of a parent.
But there are wounds that the state can deal and help with: unemployment, a mother in tears because she cannot feed her children, a human being humiliated by an agency of government, a person disabled, someone sick and needing medical attention.
On India’s independence, Nehru said he had a great ambition, to wipe every unnecessary tear off every cheek. That is not possible. In those circumstances I have described, of life imposing pain that no state can prevent, tears on cheeks are unavoidable and very often needed.
But on those other life experiences of unemployment, imposed poverty, it is possible to wipe every tear off every cheek. That is what the welfare state is for, to help people in time of need who can be helped. And it is that welfare state that austerity is meant to dismantle.
That is what the Tories mean to achieve when they talk of a “smaller state.”
Outside the small realm of the very rich, all people are vulnerable because they have nothing on which to build a good life than to sell their labour. The destruction of people and communities in the former coal mining areas is a classic example of that vulnerability laid bare.
Moving from an industrial society to a technological one does not alter that fundamental fact. If there is no state able to provide a framework of law and practice, to hold essential services in public hands, and so prevent that vulnerability being exploited, then there can be no security and stability for those who sell their labour.
Working class Scots have known that truth through experience. Middle class Scots learnt it when the financial crisis broke over their heads. The founding principle of the modern state is the same as that upon which the trade unions was built, that together we are strong, divided we are weak.
A smaller state means a weaker people, but that does not mean that the smaller state apparatus cannot be employed for economic and social purposes that will render the people even weaker. That smaller state still has power, in the hands of the Tories, a malign power.
They speak of “one nation” but engage in deliberate division, with the aim of further weakening the people through using the law to diminish the role and effectiveness of the trade unions.
It is quite natural for us, in our first approach to the austerity programme, to find it repulsive on moral grounds, and an outrageous attack upon the poorest who, like the serfs of old, can do nothing to prevent the blows landing on their heads, as the Daily Mail conducts a modern pogrom against them. Yes the poor have to be defended as best we can, but we must look deeper and understand that what austerity really means is the re-structuring of our society, meant to make our fundamental vulnerability a permanence.
The answer to that growing vulnerability today is the same as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century: political organisation that aims at power in government, built upon a trade union base, and political campaigning and education among the people.
Without power, we are left with protest. Protest is not enough now against a Tory government that will not listen and cannot be replaced as long as Scotland remain within the UK. When the boundaries are changed, as they will be, the Tories in England will have a twenty seat advantage on top of those held at present. Faced with austerity, and then more austerity, there is only one way to escape and that is through independence and a new left seeking power at Holyrood.