It’s time to get radical if we are to address the vast challenges facing Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Let’s start by understanding the scale of the problems facing us. In my New Year blog, I suggested four new ‘giants’:
- Inequality. One million people in Scotland live in poverty, including 230,000 children and 140,000 pensioners. Poverty is not just a condition, it is a matter of life and death. Healthy life expectancy can vary by as much as 20 years between the most and least deprived areas of our country.
- Climate change. The latest UN report says we have twelve years to simply limit a climate change catastrophe, by keeping the increase in global warming below 1.5C. Our health, the economy, our diverse fauna and flora, as well as wildlife, are all at risk.
- Disempowerment. The UK is over-centralised and too many powers stop at Holyrood while others are taken from local government. Economic power continues to be grabbed by big corporations, mostly unchecked by regulation or industrial democracy.
- Broken society. Too much emphasis is placed on economic performance and too little on the impact on human beings and the communities of place and interest they live in. Automation at work is used to exploit the workforce rather than liberate them. Isolation, intolerance and our consumer culture are contributing to a broken society, where we patch and mend the mental health consequences, rather than tackle the root causes.
I have been working on the Scottish Labour Party’s policy development process for the 2021 manifesto. The first stage consultation paper highlights a large number of challenges and invites members and stakeholders to suggest ideas that will develop Labour’s vision of real change.
I would argue that while Scotland has adopted some progressive policies, certainly compared with the UK government, they have all too often focused on process rather than radical action. This is the ‘safe' middle ground that the US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently challenged. She said:
“Moderate is not a stance. It’s just an attitude towards life of, like, ‘meh.’ We’ve become so cynical, that we view … cynicism as an intellectually superior attitude, and we view ambition as youthful naivety when ... the greatest things we have ever accomplished as a society have been ambitious acts of vision. The ‘meh’ is worshipped now. For what?”
There is nothing ‘moderate' about the vast inequalities in Scotland, homeless people on our streets, the growing mental health crisis, climate change or the uncontrolled power of global corporations. The establishment tells us to be pragmatic and stick to incrementalism - when what is needed is systemic change.
Let’s take just three very recent examples of proposals for radical change.
It has taken today’s children to demand that my generation takes climate change seriously. As Phil McDuff argues, climate change is the result of our economic and industrial system – we need to re-evaluate our relationship to ownership, work and capital fundamentally.
I wouldn’t normally regard the Scottish Land Commission as a body ready to consider radical solutions. However, today’s report says that most of the disadvantages of Scotland's current pattern of land ownership are related to a concentration of decision-making power. It noted that in some parts, that hampered economic development and caused serious and long-term harm to communities and there was an "urgent need" for mechanisms to protect fragile communities from the "irresponsible exercise of power".
Progressive think tanks like the New Economics Foundation have long argued that we need a new approach to local economies that challenge the economic orthodoxy of inward investment. Last week they built on their long-term criticism of personal allowances with a proposal that replaces those allowances with a weekly national allowance.
Radical change isn't easy for political parties. The two biggest Scottish spending budgets that could be shifted by preventative spending are acute hospitals and prisons. However, a minority of voters understand the case for moving resources and are much more likely to be concerned about ward closures and reductions in the use of custodial sentences.
The typically dismal mainstream media reaction to Richard Leonard’s conference speech on free bus travel reflects the establishment’s need to stamp on radical change. The problem they face is that policies like this are actually growing in popularity. Radical progressives are having an impact far higher than their ‘incrementalist’ peers. Just look at the way Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal has started a meaningful discussion about climate change in the USA.
So, radical change isn’t easy, but the challenges that face us deserve radical solutions. And more and more people, of all ages, are recognising that reality.