Margo MacDonald: Money talks in our One Nation

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Listening to some of the speeches and interviews from the Conservative Party conference, it struck me that we may be going through a real social gear-change. In the middle of such an upheaval, people can rarely, if at all, know the scope and consequences of great movements in their community’s communal beliefs and assumptions.

We hear the speeches and promises from the party political conference platforms and we evaluate them according to our own priorities, prejudices and loyalties, inside our own frame of reference.

Those who think they’ve got the big picture will gravitate towards the party that best expresses their thoughts and hopes. There’s little genuine difference in policies between the main contenders for government in Westminster. So what now determines whether a new recruit to political activism turns Left, or Right, or at the door marked “Abandon hope all ye who enter here? For people choosing the third door, the “hope” refers to the attainment of high office. This is the entrance used by Lib Dems.

I must introduce a caveat to my thesis – at this stage Scottish Lib Dems appear to be quite different in temper from their English colleagues, but perhaps the impression created by Willie Rennie’s small but well-muscled group in Holyrood flatters to deceive.The Lib Dems, as well as the Greens, seem to stand outside the consensus created by the Tories and Labour.

Presenting themselves as miles apart in their conclusions about the state we’re in, Labour and Tory jostle for the same middle spot, although they’ve travelled there by different routes. Could it be any other way 
following the deep crisis in the 
capitalist system on which the variations of social democracy are rooted? Probably not. The policies and performance of both were based on an assumption of economic growth. This gave rise to countries living beyond the revenue generated by their in-work taxpayers. As employment practices continued to require ever fewer people, but to confer employment rights on individual workers, growth was still the norm. Fundamental, extreme groups organised to overthrow capitalism could not recruit in spite of the disproportionately severe effects on the unemployed.

Latching on to the public mood, politicians urge that banks should be nationalised, that multi-millionaires should be taxed till they plead for mercy, and only “hard-working families” should receive the money released to governments in the form of benefits or tax reductions. It’s never said, but the implication is clear: some people are not hard working, so they will not benefit in any way.

At a time of zero growth in the economy, home and abroad, the relative generosity of the haves to the have-nots is being replaced by a harsher response. It may be that decency, sympathy and ideas of sharing hardship can only survive, even amongst the hard-working families, in the atmosphere created by economic growth. Politicians commonly reflect what they judge to be the centre ground of the community’s place in the moral and social spectrum. Both parties proclaim themselves members of “One Nation”. The Tories promise £10 billion less to be spent on welfare. Labour holds out hope, not shared by the international money lenders, of “growth”, but only after tough times, ie less money being spent on the services used by hard-working families.

In Scotland, if the worst should happen and we don’t vote clearly for independence, the Scottish Tories won’t be spoiled for choice when they try to influence the Finance Minister in his priorities. Their leader, Ruth Davidson, says only one Scot in eight is putting money into the communal kitty and a high percentage of the remaining seven is leeching on the good citizens whose taxes pay for their handouts.

If she’s correct in her calculations, and she wants to maximise the Tory vote, why isn’t she moulding her message and spending more, not less, on the undeserving poor? There are many more of them with votes. This is another reason for people in Scotland to be surprised at Johann Lamont’s apparent acceptance of the “something for nothing” view of today’s society. Instead of Labour scooping up the support of the dispossessed, by announcing a review of welfare benefits, Johann has moved on to the dead centre of the One Nation platform.

Economic recession has stirred very deep waters about human rights and dignity and the failure of politicians to keep these intact during a period of economic upheaval, suggesting that the benefits of having a welfare state will become memories, fond and otherwise. It seems fanciful to even wonder if the welfare state could become a historical period, as the Soviet system was, for example. As I said, we usually don’t know if the tectonic plates are shifting . . .