The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Whatever the referendum results, more powers will be devolved to the government. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The United Kingdom in its current form is unacceptable

Whatever the outcome of the referendum the status quo should not endure. Constitutional change is coming to Scotland and the rest of the UK, and we are all the better for it.

There are now fewer than 100 days remaining until the Scottish independence referendum. As Alistair Darling says in our interview this week: “This is a vote that’s not like a normal general election. This is something the nationalists have to win only once, by one vote. It is irrevocable. You would never come back.”

Despite the criticism of Mr Darling’s performance as head of the No campaign, the polls suggest that the unionist side remains on course for victory. But whatever the outcome of the referendum – and it could be very close – the status quo cannot and should not endure. Constitutional change is coming to Scotland and the rest of the UK, and we are all the better for it.

Before the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, it was predicted, in the words of the former Labour cabinet minister George Robertson, that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. Yet it was those who argued that devolution was “a process, not an event” who were correct.

Under the terms of the Scotland Act 2012, Holyrood will win the right to vary the country’s income-tax rate by up to 10p, as well as gaining complete control of stamp duty and landfill tax and new powers to borrow for capital expenditure. All three of the main Westminster parties have vowed to go further than this, with the Scottish Conservatives pledging on 2 June to devolve income tax in full to Holyrood.

That the party that campaigned against devolution for so long (albeit on the grounds that it would serve to encourage nationalism) has changed its stance is evidence that the UK political establishment has belatedly accepted the long-held desire among Scots for greater autonomy, whether for full independence or so-called Devo Plus or Devo Max. However, Tories’ hopes of a revival in Scotland, where they have only one MP (out of 59), will be disappointed. The Conservative and Unionist Party has been decisively defeated north of the border.

Perhaps, of the three main parties, it is only Labour that can win a fair hearing in Scotland, if indeed it deserves to. It is regrettable, therefore, that its proposals for further devolution have been so timid. Unlike the Conservatives, Scottish Labour is proposing only to allow Holyrood to vary income-tax rates by up to 15p on the grounds that going any further would risk triggering a “race to the bottom” and undermine the ability of the UK to redistribute across the nations. Neither argument bears scrutiny. Income tax represents just 23 per cent of UK tax revenue, leaving much to redistribute, and it is up to Labour to win the argument for progressive taxation, not to maintain control for fear that it will lose. Such caution validates Alex Salmond’s argument that only by voting for independence will Scots win the new powers they both want and deserve.

Further devolution is also necessary to address the grievance felt among English voters that Holyrood is able to spend money – on free university education, free prescriptions and free social care for the elderly – without having the responsibility of raising it.

Where Labour has an advantage over its rivals is in recognising that new powers for Scotland must be coupled with greater autonomy for England and for its cities. Labour has pledged to devolve at least £20bn of funding to the regions, a figure that should increase once Andrew Adonis’s growth review is published in full. It is hoped that, by ensuring decisions are made closer to those they affect, trust can begin to be restored in a discredited and overly centralised political system.

Beyond the important but technocratic arguments over the currency, North Sea oil and EU membership, the case for the Union is ultimately emotional: what unites the people of these islands is surely more important than what divides them. The possibility that the most successful multinational state in modern history could soon be broken up is cause for regret. For now, the Union might yet endure. But unless the grievances that have led to our present constitutional crisis, in Scotland and in England, are resolved, the ties that bind us will become ever more frayed. One day, quite soon, they might well snap.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.