The Case for a Common Weal


This article is written in response to Rory Scothorne’s ‘Riding the Unicorn’.

Considering the often asserted social democratic consensus which underpins much of the pro-independence argument, the state of Scottish social democracy is on relatively shaky ground. While elections produce a consistent bloc-vote for what is understood to be the centre-left, this has, for a myriad of reasons, failed to significantly halt the retreat of the social democratic state. The importance of Scotland’s attachment to Westminster to this retreat is, of course, a key part the left-wing argument for independence.

The comparative success of the social democratic model in Scandinavia has long been the envy of many Scottish nationalists. The consistent high performance of the Scandinavian nations in measures of living standards and social equality would be enough to cause envy. That these were being achieved in countries which were a short trip across the North Sea, of a similar size to Scotland and, in the case of Norway, oil-rich, has been enough to raise the Nordic model to the status of a shibboleth amongst some.

This attachment to Nordicism was the subject of Rory Scothorne’s article Riding the Unicorn, written largely in response to the new Common Weal project, where he eloquently attacks what he perceives to be ideological and intellectual weaknesses in the commonly presented left-wing argument for independence. Scothorne’s argument contains some valid criticisms of the limitations of social democracy which the Scottish left would do well to, at least, discuss. However, in focusing on the specifics of Nordicism Scothorne largely attacks a vision promoted by, essentially, nobody.

First of all, there is no single, coherent Nordic model which we can discuss. As the Head of Political Science at Copenhagen University argued to Michael Gray recently:

Perhaps I have to debunk a myth. There is no Nordic model. They are very different. There are five, if you include Iceland. If you read the writing in English it can be simplistic.”

The second problem, which Scothorne identifies, is that even if such a model did exist it would be impossible to replicate it. Scotland, with its own history, and a well-developed governmental and economic infrastructure, cannot simply become Norway or Sweden.

Rather than a model to be imposed, Nordicism, as far as we understand it, offers a very convincing argument against the inevitability or superiority of the Anglo-American model of deregulated capitalism. While Scandinavia has not been immune to the advances of the market, the long-standing success of the Nordic nations demonstrates an alternative. Scandinavia offers, if nothing else, a compelling argument: that quality of life and levels of equality are strictly related and are best delivered through a committed social democratic state operating in a small nation.

My argument – that Nordicism is at best aspirational rather than a model to be replicated – is hardly original. The first briefing paper produced by the Jimmy Reid Foundation on the Common Weal makes this abundantly clear. Even earlier than this, Stephen Maxwell argued in a 2007 speech to SNP Conference that:

Scotland shares much of the Nordic bias towards social democracy. Of course we will have to work out our own version to suit our peculiar legacy and the particular global circumstances in which independence is finally achieved. But, given the scale and intensity of our social problems, I find it difficult to conceive of an effective response which is not based on the social democratic fundamentals of an active state committed to egalitarian outcomes through universal public services and a redistributive tax and welfare system.”

The weakness of Scottish progressive thought is that, starved of the opportunity to control the key levers of the economy and welfare state, we have failed to outline how the powers of independence will be used to construct a modern social democratic state. I use the word construct here deliberately – such is the extent of the failure of British capitalism that is not enough to simply preserve the remnants of the post-war settlement. But this is more an issue of economic reconstruction rather than public services. If independence does not alter Scotland’s economic model to tackle our structural poverty and deprivation then independence will have failed and the social democracy hoped for will be untenable.

The crucial contribution of the Common Weal is moving the social democratic discussion away from simple Nordic fetishism and onto areas of real policy substance. While it is early days, and the crowd-sourced nature of the project will inevitably mean that quality will be inconsistent, it is a project that is worth watching closely. Much of the problem with social democracy is that it has ceased to mean anything in particular. The post-war settlement was the great moment of British social democracy – since then, the left has spent decades in defensive mode, fighting against the erosion of the welfare state. The right have had ideas. The left have been conservative.

The great achievement of the SNP in government – and of devolution itself – has been the commitment to universalism in public services. One important lesson from the Nordic experience is that public support for the welfare state and progressive taxation will be resilient in a society with greater equality and social cohesion. Universalism is a key part of this, binding society together through the institutions of the state. Break the universal principle and public services can be compartmentalised and dismantled one by one. This is why universalism is one part of Maxwell’s social democratic trinity alongside redistribution through tax and welfare.

The basic institutions of the social democratic state already exist in Scotland. The challenge is to move beyond protection and instead extend these. This is far from impossible, particularly in the context of an independent Scotland, where a move away from the high military spend of the UK state would allow greater support for public services without any drain on the public purse. In the context of devolution – at least without a significant transfer of powers – there is very little room for progress. As Cailean Gallagher writes:

It was not the SNP who displaced class from Scottish politics but the architects of devolution who allowed no issues of economic contracts to pass the Castle’s firmly closed door, behind which the Court sits in social democratic consensus. The SNP hold Court having played social democracy better than the other parties, in a system where class was already excluded.”

It is not enough for the left to position itself simply as anti-neoliberal. But the great neoliberal experiment has failed. Unleashing the markets has not only been bad for the great number it has impoverished, but it has been bad for capitalism itself: social mobility has been eroded, the concentration of wealth hinders economic growth, monopolies and cartels control much of the economy and the unrestrained market has been proven to be inherently unstable.

In contrast the Scandinavian economies have remained relatively robust and, while imperfect, have delivered high standards of living while the UK – and Scotland – languish at the foot of many of the rankings for quality of life, inequality and health amongst developed nations. Our model is broken even by it’s own standards.

Problems on this scale will often induce a yearning for radical solutions. But radical outcomes do not necessarily require radical initiatives. Quietly, and on a very small scale, some Scottish communities are undergoing experiments in democratic public ownership in renewable energy. Land reform remains part of both the SNP’s and Scottish Labour’s agendas. The Scottish Government has promised to guarantee social rights in the constitution of an independent Scotland. The next SNP Conference will debate measures to assist the launch of Co-operatives. Discussions are already ongoing on devolving power to island communities, which could herald the rebirth of a vibrant local democracy.

None of this, in isolation, will be enough. But the foundations are there to be built upon.

Dan Paris
National Collective