Robin McAlpine – 18th August 2022
If you’re looking for a bit of that anger I was writing about last week, the kind of anger that you can turn into determination, then let me see if I can help…
What I was going to do this week was write a positive piece in which I looked over what might be some immediate responses to the cost of living crisis, but as I tried to do it, more and more I realised I was writing fiction. I wasn’t even trying to write about the kind of society-changing radical things I listed last week, I was only trying to come up with some basic emergency mitigation.
The fact that it is very hard to think of credible things we can do in Scotland that would actually work and almost impossible to think of them at a UK level suggests something is deeply rotten.
So let’s kick off at the UK level. I’m almost developing a degree of respect for Liz Truss’s blunt statement that the handouts are over and the people suffering can just suck it up. She’s saying ‘don’t look at the poor people as if something is wrong, look at the rich people as if its all fine’. So at least she’s being kind of honest about her disinterest in the poor – Starmer is just lying about it.
Starmer’s plans are as cynical as they could be. What Starmer is proposing is an action which would be over by the time the clocks go forward again, at which point he’ll still be a failing leader of the opposition. That is another way to say that at no point from the moment his team started working on this ‘plan’ until the 26 minutes later when it was finished did they ever for a second think that this was about helping the poor. It was Starmer screaming ‘look at me, look at me’.
(This analysis piece calmly explains how this stunt was all ‘optics’ and very little economic substance.)
Britain’s politics are reduced to two people looking at themselves in the mirror while corporate media and big business lobbyists shout ‘don’t you dare!’ from just off camera. When the Guardian’s Starmer apologists use the word ‘credible’ what they mean is ‘acceptable to Britain’s elite’.
The only things that would make any serious difference are major spending and punitive action against profiteering corporations followed by structural change in the economy, employment and trade union laws and the tax system – and none of that’s going to happen.
So what about Scotland? Well, the Scottish Government’s first response to the crisis was to go into PR mode and spin the life out of how much it was spending to help, a genuinely distasteful stunt given the circumstances. When that was rumbled its second reaction was to (deep breath) write a letter to Boris Johnson.
Their third was to crack open the ‘Resilience Room’, which is just another government committee. That came up with six actions which amount to ‘perhaps mibby think about doing something in a little while’. Their fourth was a ‘Crisis Summit’. Let me let you into a secret – when politicians hold a ‘crisis summit’, nine times out of ten it’s not to ‘solve a crisis’ but to set up a photo of them looking ‘bold and purposeful’.
Every bit as much as Keir Starmer, the Scottish Government’s response so far has been ‘look at us, look at us’. Of meaningful action you’ll find little.
The really big problem is that the steps we ought to be relying on now should have been made possible over the last eight years. Had the Council Tax been reformed fairly, a Land Tax introduced, proper local government put in place, support for community capacity-building made available, a decent care service been established, local and domestic businesses supported and housing made affordable, we’d be starting from a very different place.
Instead the poor effectively pay five times as much as the rich in Council Tax, wealthy landowners are untaxed, we have Europe’s worst local democracy, communities are poorly supported, our care provision is fragmented and substandard, corporations were given privileged status and it was the bulk housing developers and the landlords who were backed, not homeowners and not tenants.
The Scottish Government has on almost every occasion sided with those causing prices to rise. And now that crisis has arrived we are living with that legacy and it is hard to undo. Politics has failed people and as more and more goes wrong, the people can feel it.
So if we can’t expect anything from above, what about from below? This is where my hopes would usually lie. To give you an example, the idea that corporate local authorities should be bringing in KPMG to develop a costly plan for turning sports centres into ‘warm banks’ where desperate people can huddle until they stop shivering is not a good one.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been lucky to see round two great community-driven initiatives (I won’t name them because everyone in Scotland is afraid of recriminations if they make any public criticism of officials). Both are the kinds of initiatives that could offer life-saving community help and support in a crisis like this.
They save lives not because they prevent people freezing to death but because they give people the chance of relationships and community and activity that makes life worth living (as well as somewhere warm to go). Plus unlike the army of senior council managers they don’t extract very generous salaries.
If I was tackling this crisis it is them to whom I’d throw the money, all the money I could find, straight to them without a single consultant or ‘director of community services’ getting in the way.
But, like almost every community organisation I can think of, they have little official support. If it isn’t a councillor’s own vanity project, if the local authority managers don’t get to control it and if the PR department don’t get to brand it, they’re not interested.
But worse, the two examples I saw are in communities which have major poverty problems but which, crucially, have enough stability to be able to generate these kinds of initiatives. In many of the places in Scotland most in need the decades of deprivation mean there is little community infrastructure at which to throw money.
I was also thinking about really transformative initiatives, like what if every community had a community cafe where anyone could come and eat, not only out of desperation but because communal eating is enjoyable and binds communities together.
But if you target the provision at the poor the evidence is pretty clear that it fails – even cold and hungry people have pride and others struggle to navigate the bureaucracy you need to go through to access targeted services (if they even know it is available in the first place). And there is no way this government is going to make it universal, nor would I have any faith in its ability to roll out an initiative of that scale in the time we have.
I can keep going on like this – if only we had already…, what if we tried…, can’t we copy what they’re doing in… But whether it is the sorry nature of the political class, the often outrageously self-serving public management class or the disempowered and damaged communities that they have both left behind, everywhere there are great big barriers.
And so onwards this sorry story spins, with spin being the operative word. The politicians strain every sinew to persuade you they’re the leaders this era needs. One more press release and we’ll be there… below that is a Scotland of sclerotic, self-serving bureaucracies and powerless communities.
What would I do? I’d make it damn clear that this latest crisis has to be a turning point. It has to be the point where the bureaucracies are tamed, the communities are given power and money, the politicians we have are told to reconsider whether they are the people this era needs and the corporate CEOs and their lobbyists are told their grasping and bullying will no longer be tolerated.
That is not going to happen and the consequences will be dire. But just maybe it will be the breaking point where enough people say ‘no more, no more, it is time for real change’.