This is my second pre-General-Election essay for The National, published May 6th, 2015 (the first is here). Again, after the event, it's a little painful to read my optimism for a prog majority in Westminster... but never mind Borgen, who could have predicted Corbyn?
A dollop of Borgen, a pinch of House of Cards ... and a chance to mould a new model for society
SO tomorrow – unless commercial polling is about to lose all credibility – Scotland looks like it’s going to shake up the place. Or at least, install its strong interests (and principles) right at the heart of the British State.
As a spectacle of power live from London, this will be a continuously fascinating drama for us all, a real-life blend of Borgen and House of Cards. A new crowd of street campaigners, svelte professionals and outright characters will be finding their way around those encrusted corridors.
If the predictions are right, their sheer numbers will compel not just the media, but the mechanics of Westminster government itself to change. I imagine Scottish political journalists are both delighted at the increased job security, and daunted by the coming avalanche of new stories to be covered.
Now that the energy and activism of the indyref seems to have achieved some kind of concrete result, let’s start thinking about the next set of horizons for Scottish progress.
The Scots Bloc will help bring the rest of the UK (in reality, mostly England) inside the European social-democratic mainstream. But what big challenges lie beyond the Borgenisation of everything? And how might a confident, coherent Scotland respond, and perhaps lead?
In my futures work for the innovation charity Nesta, a few grand themes about what we face on the way to the mid-century keep emerging. One is automation, and by implication employment and labour. According to a range of predictions, around 45 per cent of existing jobs in the developed world will disappear in 20 years, due to self-driving cars, workerless factories, and data-crunching smart computers replacing white-collar routine.
Who will this shift benefit? Well, look at who the past 20 years of digitalisation have benefitted: tech and net giants such as Apple and Google, amassing gargantuan profits while low-to-middle incomes have stagnated or even fallen.
Our centre-left politicians might agree on the need for “high-skill, high-wage” economies – addressing “deficits” or welfare bills through unspecified “growth”. But left to purely capitalist devices, the prospect of automation will bring an even more economically polarised society than we have now.
The only “growth” will be in the fortunes of those few who own, and those slightly more numerous who manage, these automated systems and platforms. The consequent societal damage should be obvious. That is, unless some nations and polities can strongly assert the social and human factors in this scenario.
This is not a Luddite response – or at least, not as the Luddites are usually misrepresented. They were for technology that might, as their writings put it, “benefit the commonality”. And if there’s one achievement of Scotland over the past few decades, it is a rich sense of national “commonality” (or common weal).
So what would a Scots response to the age of automation be – with, say, the tools of welfare and taxation at our disposal? One suggestion would be to expand the notion of the social wage, announced by Salmond in his prospectus after the last SNP electoral landslide in 2011.
The social wage was a concept covering the support that the Scottish Government would give – eg, free tuition fees, prescriptions, and personal care – to establish an agreed collective social floor, from which individual Scots might rise and flourish.
How might we strengthen that floor, given the prospect of millions of low-to-middling jobs and wages disappearing over the next few years?
Natalie Bennett, the head of the UK Green Party, suffered badly at the beginning of the campaign, unable to provide costings for her party’s flagship policy of a citizen’s (or guaranteed) income. But it’s the underlying justification of a citizen’s income that needs to come out.
EVEN in terms of global leadership, one nation must start to advocate that the productivity benefits of automation have to be distributed among the “commonality”. Now, similar to a wealth tax, no nation would want to lead on introducing a citizen’s income, given the mobility of capital and business.
But Scottish politicians should be in the forefront of arguments that the EU should consider a social wage or citizen’s income as a response to the coming wipe-out of employment sectors. And we can, at a regional or municipal level, start to experiment with some of these models.
The other massive trend bearing down upon all societies is the consequence of reducing carbon emissions, in order to prevent exponential warming of the planet.
Technological innovation leading to greater efficiencies – like Elon Musk’s household battery, just announced – will partly address this. But the need to move away from a high-consumption-driven economy, and to reduce the material throughput of resources in our system, is more urgent than any technical fix.
After the splurge and excess of 30 years of glittering though wasteful neo-liberalism, what kind of society would it take to resist the lure of the high-street or mega-mall chain stores?
Maybe one that has found other sources of meaning, beauty, relationship and pleasure than consumer lifestyles? And perhaps found those in increased political awareness, an ethos of social care, an intrinsic interest in education and skills, a vibrant, participatory culture?
Is Scotland that place? Mibbes aye. Yes, we need to have a macro-level argument about the oil we leave in the ground, or don’t burn off for energy. But we Scots also have human and creative resources for one of the most important collective journeys we’ll make in the next 30 years. How can we think of policy that develops and increases those resources?
So we’re voting this time to reform Britain, essentially. But Scottish independence is still the best context in which we can fully imagine, and realise, Scottish progress and development. And by virtue of the standards we set in pursuit of that goal, we help progress and development across these islands, and further beyond.
For better or worse, for richer or poorer, Scotland is now a “laboratory for democracy”, to borrow the words of the US Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis. We should be proud of that, and the inspiration it brings to many, as we make our way – thoughtfully, as ever – to the ballot boxes tomorrow.