I was honoured to be asked to contribute to a workshop facilitated by SPERI, the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, yesterday. The subject of the roundtable discussion was “Scotland, the North and economic development: compatriots or competitors?” And, as co-convener of the Scottish Greens, I was asked to speak for a few minutes about my take on on the politics of this issue. These are my introductory comments (I will write more about the full workshop at a later date).
Good afternoon everyone and thank you very much for inviting me to join you today. It is a great pleasure to be here, and I am very interested to hear what you have to say in the discussions a bit later on.
I am Maggie Chapman, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, and I guess, given who else is on the panel, my role today is to focus on the politics, and perhaps the political possibilities, of devolution, and how democratic power interacts with the economy.
I campaigned for a Yes vote in the Independence referendum, and a Remain vote in the EU Referendum. I want Scotland to be independent, not as an end in itself, but as a means to something much better: a socially just, truly democratic and welcoming, peace-making country that has a positive influence on the world. I want Scotland to remain part of the EU, not because I think the EU is a beacon of democratic transparency and economic equality, but because I believe in the free movement of people and in the necessity of international agreement and action for things like tackling climate change and refugee crises.
So, how can we, in Scotland and the North of England, use devolution to improve the lives of our people in our communities?
The most important aspect of devolution, for me, is the relocation of democratic power: from Westminster to Holyrood, and then, hopefully, from Holyrood to Local Authorities and from Local Authorities to communities and neighbourhoods. Giving power back to people, letting them have more control over the decisions that affect their daily lives, is the only way to re-engage communities with politics, and therefore deal with the pressing issues of inequality and unemployment. And we’ve not cracked this in Scotland. Our local government is anything by local: we have the least local local government of anywhere in Europe, and the SNP government does not seem to be doing anything to change this. It has centralised public services and restricted local tax raising powers. Rather, we need communities to have real power of budgetary decisions. We need much more citizen involvement in decisions about local service provision. And we need to harness the skills, expertise and creativity of our people to address the big social and economic challenges we face.
But, at least in Scotland, we do actually have some of the building blocks for challenging centralisation and alienation.
My understanding of the Northern Powerhouse, of the attempts to rebalance England’s economy, is probably more limited than many of you here, but it strikes me as significant that the Northern Powerhouse agenda is an economic one, not a democratic one. Yes, there are some democratic tweaks, such as Manchester getting an elected mayor, but no real change in how power is controlled. And this is a key weakness. True devolution is about the relinquishing of real power, not just tokenism. I was struck, during the EU ref debate, by the comments of someone from the North East saying that they were voting Leave because the EU had done nothing for them. This, despite the fact that a key reason Nissan and the thousands of jobs it supports are in the North East of England is down to EU membership. This is a classic interaction of democratic alienation doing damage to economic reality. People feel so distant from the democratic process that they are willing to risk destruction of the roots of local prosperity. In Scotland, demographically similar communities voted to remain – even without export based manufacturing.
And perhaps it’s worth mentioning here, that all the talk about the problem being immigration is a complete red herring. Immigration contributes jobs, taxes and workers willing to do undesirable jobs. The problem is austerity: in 2013 NEF calculated that 80% of new jobs since the 2008 crash had been created in Greater London. This is a problem, but attributing it to immigration is not the answer!
So, democracy is not just some nicety you get as a reward for being wealthy: it underpins the economy. An engaged citizenry and more lively democracy means it is much easier to influence important economic issues, such as supporting job creation, diversifying the economy and so on. And this is perhaps what English political culture has failed to understand.
So, where does that leave us?
The UK’s (and Scotland’s) focus on financial services as the economic driver has meant a collapse of historic industries in the North and in Scotland. Whilst oil has propped up the Scottish economy for the last few decades by increasing the value of the pound, the North of England has had no succession industry. So, when the oil economy begins to falter, Scotland looks to be in very much the same position as the North of England: there is no long-term, sustainable industrial strategy (despite efforts of the Scottish Parliament: Scotland lacks some of the most significant macroeconomic levers). So the questions we need to answer is what succession industries can replace the old industries of the North and Scotland, and how do we make them work in the context of a financialised system.
Now, the EU Referendum vote might mean that financial services take fright and leave, but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking. And, we’ll still have a huge budgetary black hole to fill. In Scotland, some of the answer will lie in investing in reindustrialisation of the renewables energy sector. In the North of England, perhaps the first step must be refocussing to truly devolving power to regions and supporting things like regional development agencies abolished by the Coalition government.
So, perhaps as we negotiate our ways through the mire that is the post-EU Referendum world, we need to prioritise movement building. Collective endeavour and solidarity across regional boundaries, to share experiences, learn from each other, build social capital, and develop strong communities with a clear plan for a positive future. Only then can we resist the xenophobia and bigotry, the victim blaming and finger pointing, the marginalisation of people who are different to us, that seems so prevalent in UK politics at the moment.
[A discussion brief written before the workshop will be published on the SPERI website soon, and you can read/watch the SPERI 2016 Annual Lecture, by Nicola Sturgeon, which followed the workshop here.]