Social Justice and Independence
by Diarmid Weir
The debate between Labour and the SNP has, contrary to the observations of some, taken a turn for the better. An open discussion of whether ‘independence versus social justice’ is a genuine or a false issue, and if genuine, what might be its implications, is surely a step forward from the parties describing each other as ‘snake-oil peddlers’ and ‘London Labour clones’ however satisfying this might be for the immediate protagonists!
Social justice has always been, in various guises, the implicit justification for Labour’s existence irrespective of how others might have viewed this, or how even many of its members might now view it. Without it, the general election of 1997 becomes simply the political equivalent of a ‘management buyout’, with little likelihood of benefit for the ordinary ‘shareholder’. This analogy is reasonably apt, not in the way that it is often misused – to suggest that running a national government is essentially the same as running a business – but because it illustrates the fact that changing the management of a business is futile when economic conditions have rendered that business no longer viable in its current form. For the SNP, which claims a social democratic outlook, social justice is an implied aim, but one which apparently requires independence for it to be realised within Scotland.
In a Fabian pamphlet, Tony Blair made the strongest possible case for social justice, writing that ‘Without a fair distribution of the benefits of progress, societies risk falling apart in division, rancour and distrust’. This does not of course answer the debate on what constitutes ‘social justice’ or how we achieve it, but it does point up its importance.
If we were to assume for the sake of argument that all the other policies of the two parties were equally likely to command the same level of support for their ability (or lack of it) to achieve ‘social justice’, can we draw any conclusions about the effects of their different attitudes to the constitutional question? For Labour the debate must become focussed on the policies and measurement of social justice. A failure to achieve acceptable aims will have little hiding place in a country of only 5 million people. A Labour Scottish government finding itself in this position can only either blame its UK partners or explain that wider socioeconomic forces render the aims of Scots impossible. There must be a reasonable chance of the relevant issues actually being discussed, probably rather more sharply and with more chance of being addressed than was possible under the less responsive direct rule of Westminster.
For the SNP issues of social justice and that of independence may seem easily married at first – indeed they may take the pragmatic attitude that greater social justice in Scotland may produce a taste for greater self-determination. But beyond this there lies a dilemma. For independence to be meaningful some changes in Scotland’s institutions and relationships, both social and economic, will be required. Without quantifying the cost of these – to do so is to be drawn into an endless round of speculation and counterspeculation – it is surely unarguable that whatever their cost, including the opportunity cost of the effort going into setting these up, less resources will go to the end of social justice per se. The difference may be slight or even negligible, but it will certainly not be zero, and may be significantly large. And whatever they are some of these costs will have to continue in maintaining Scotland’s independent status.
The counter-argument of the SNP would of course be that true social justice for Scots can only be achieved after independence, or at any rate will be achieved more quickly. If the latter were accepted, the aims of the SNP would become decidedly contingent, and subject to vagaries of UK government policy or of external economic events. I think to justify their position the SNP have to assume the necessity of independence, in practice at any rate. But there are at least two serious logical errors in considering that Scotland will achieve greater social justice through even greater self-determination. Firstly the idea of social justice in one country is as ultimately unsustainable as Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country’. It must inevitably lead to the absurdity of valuing the interests of a millionaire in Dunbar over those of a pensioner in Berwick-upon-Tweed. The consequences of such a situation are ultimately as damaging to Scots as to those living in England. Secondly it ignores the fact that while information and capital remain concentrated in the hands of transnational corporations, any single country’s powers are distinctly limited. And it is only by bringing these forces under democratic control that true social justice can be achieved. This can only be brought about by close co-operation, not so much between nations, since this often only allows governing elites to concentrate their power, but by the people of nations expressing their consensual desires. Artificial barriers between citizens of these nations can only make this outcome less likely.
I hope I have shown that ‘independence versus social justice’ is not a false argument. In the final analysis a choice between these two goals will have to be made. Which of these two goals is the most important should ultimately be up to the Scottish people, but it is important for us to understand that we cannot pursue them both to their conclusions. We should ask ourselves this question: If the Scottish National Party were faced with overwhelming evidence that independence must lead to a reduced level of social justice, would they cease to regard the dream of independence as something to be desired in itself? Since the SNP would lose its reason for existence by doing so, this must be rated as improbable.
Diarmid Weir 24/11/98