This year in Scotland, the division between ‘nationalists’ and ‘unionists’ is the one that will dominate our political debate. But for those of us who care deeply about Scotland and our country’s future, this should be deeply worrying. And for those of us on the progressive side of politics, it should concern us that the political discourse in Scotland is dominated by a division that, logically, can lead to us closing our eyes and ears to the real causes and solutions of the problems that affect our society.
In June of this year, Nicola Sturgeon made the accurate point that there are more wealthy people in the South East of England than the rest of the UK. It’s a valid point, and one that has much to do with high house prices and the presence of one of the largest city economies in the world. It’s a point that Ed Miliband had also made several times before, when trying to show how the whole of the UK needed to be rebalanced away from the South East.
For the SNP, however, the crude point being made was that “rich” people in the South East of England were exploiting “poor” people in Scotland. It was a point supported on the front page of a national newspaper on the same weekend, which declared that London was “bleeding Scotland dry.” It was a crude portrayal of the balance of power and wealth across the UK.
But while the SNP frequently talk of inequalities between England and Scotland, and between London and Edinburgh, we hear little of the hard reality of inequality inside Scotland’s borders.
Around the same time that the ONS published the data Nicola Sturgeon pointed to in order to make her point about inequality, the well-respected Fraser of Allander institute published the first overview of economic inequality in Scotland’s regions between 1997 and 2010. The conclusions were stark. While the Scottish economy grew by 24.2 per cent in real terms over this period, performance across Scotland’s regions varied significantly.
Five of Scotland’s sub-regions performed more than 10 per cent worse than Scotland as a whole. The worst performing group – Inverclyde, East Renfrewshire and Renfrewshire was nearly 23 per cent below the Scottish average over that period (representing only two per cent growth), while the best was more than 23 per cent higher. In the period between 2002 and 2010, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen grew and accounted for half of all Scottish output.
In the UK as a whole, similar results from economic surveys of this period are keeping politicians and economists awake as they try to work out how they solve this public policy challenge and build a balanced economy. But in the world of Scottish politics and public policy – where the key challenge set by the nationalists is always to compare ourselves with England – these important nuances are completely lost.
Should this surprise us? Ask yourself when you last heard a senior SNP politician really address inequality inside Scotland, and you’ll be left wanting. And compare Alex Salmond’s nationalist vision to Ed Miliband’s vision for a one nation Britain and the differences between Labour’s values and those of the SNP are stark.
In our approach to the economy, one nation Labour is grounded in the experiences of people the length and breadth of the UK who can see from their own lives and their own communities that the economy is not working in the way it should be. As Ed Miliband said in February, the answer is not to believe in the idea that wealth “trickles down” and that “a more unequal economy where a few people take the proceeds can be a successful economy”, but to grow an economy made by the many, not just the few at the top.
It’s an idea that most Scots would agree with, but not one that Alex Salmond and the SNP are keen to adopt. Instead, cutting tax for the biggest companies is still their preferred route to growing Scotland’s economy.
Over the next year, plenty of ink will be spilled and airtime exhausted on the intricacies of our referendum. As progressives, interested and engaged in debates about how we improve Scotland, the UK and the rest of the world, we need to keep at the front of our minds that the battle we fight is about ideas and values at the heart of the independence debate, but at the heart of our entire political cause.
This isn’t just a debate between the SNP and Labour, between those who would see us break apart and those of us who want the UK to remain intact, it is an argument at a crucial time in our history – when the world is changing around us – about whether the values we think will see us through are progressive or nationalist. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.
Margaret Curran is Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and MP for Glasgow East. This is an abridged version of an essay that originally appeared in the Scottish Fabians pamphlet, Ambitions for Scotland.