Sunshine, blue skies, soaring temperatures, Scottish Parliament recess: summer is well and truly here! And we go into the summer with Scottish politics in what appears to be a steady state of turmoil. This turmoil is largely caused by the UK Government and its total inability to deal with the Brexit that it has caused. But Scotland can use its engaged, transformed and progressive public sphere to overcome this turmoil.
More than 24 months have passed since the UK - not Scotland - voted, by a slim margin, to leave the EU. And it is probably fair to characterise much of this post-referendum period as a phoney war. We still have little idea of what any Brexit deal will actually look like. But we are probably about to start seeing substantial movement as more people begin to realise just what Brexit will mean, and how devastating it will be for so many communities.
The stakes are high. The aim of the hard Brexiteers - those who speak of a “Global Britain” - is to demolish much of what we in Scotland hold dear: the gains workers and progressives have made since the late 19th century. They seek to create a low wage economy based on the lowest standards in the developed world. This means less safety in our food and less security in its supply, more dangerous workplaces, the erosion of the minimum wage, the withdrawal of what welfare remains, and, in the year in which we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the life-saving NHS, the destruction of a healthcare system that is free at the point of use.
The mechanism of this destruction will be trade deals: reorienting our economy away from the EU and towards other markets. Initially, this will bring with it a period of deep economic reorganisation once we move to WTO rules, and before we have negotiated any other trade deals or relationships. The economy, in this context, is likely to have to be low wage, low regulation, with little or no worker protection, increasing inequalities because of the removal of social protections, and the wholesale marketisation of public services. This is the Jacob Rees Mogg model of “Global Britain”.
Many of us opposed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA), but every trade deal Brexit Britain does will give away more rights, protections and security for normal people and workers. This is because every trade deal we do as “Global Britain” will be done from a position of weakness. Britain has little that the world needs, but very clearly needs the rest of the world.
The incentive for the US to concede anything during TTIP negotiations was access to a market of over 500 million people. It seems impossible that they will concede anything more for access to a market of 65 million people, especially at a time when the US president is moving away from international trade as a marker of US Government. Just as Britain joined the EU late, so it seems like this is us joining the global trade economy just as it comes to an end.
But, in Scotland, the development of an inclusive and engaged public sphere offers us the best way out of this. A sunny Saturday recently saw over 500 people gather in Glasgow to discuss democracy at the Electoral Reform Society Scotland’s ‘Democracy 21’ conference. We heard about the successes of urban buyouts, community campaigns resisting corporate power, the democratisation of university governance, and so much more.
If the 2014 White Paper on Scottish Independence offered a Scotland that was largely the same, but independent, what we see now is a Scotland transformed ready to claim its independence. And that transformation came from the inclusive and participatory discussions that became a feature of Scottish life. What we need to do is keep building this public sphere.
If post-Brexit trade deals threaten to impose fracking, privatised education with up-front payment, and an NHS opened to even more private sector profiteering then we have the tools to oppose that. We can start by opposing Trump at the forthcoming protests but that must only be the start of opposing the influence of the American hard-right in British politics.
The Brexit game is designed to do two things: firstly, to short sell the UK economy by creating a crisis, and then to asset strip the country after Brexit by selling off public assets like the NHS, the education system and anything that moves.
In the same way as the NHS was based on a social model developed in Welsh mining communities and the Highlands, so we must use our social movements now to protect the NHS and our public services. And then we must use them to build new systems that work for all. The public services that have developed since the Thatcher era (childcare and adult social care) have been a disaster. It is time to bring the principles of the common good to those systems too. That way we will be able to seize the opportunities of a very different kind of economic system for the benefit of all.
This article first appeared in The National.