Introduction

I would first like to say thank you to Sally, who is here tonight with Jamie and Luke, and to Martin Sime for asking me to give this lecture. I am truly honoured. I deeply respected Stephen Maxwell. He had such integrity and a real and serious concern about developing a more equitable society here in Scotland. Stephen was a very modest, courteous man, as many of you know, and unusual for a person so active politically- he never pushed his ideas at you, but relished discussion and debate.

His writing displays the same calm, analytical and exploratory approach to political issues and as he did, making radical ideas sound just the most sensible thing one should do. The book he completed just before he died has already become an essential resource in the independence debate and the packed meeting that was held last week to launch the collection of his essays, shows that his legacy is going to find a central place in the referendum debate – as it should.

“The war on the Commonweal: making a stand in 2014”

The first time I heard about this war was back in the 1980’s. I was a community worker in Pilton and I met Cathy McCormack – a community activist and writer from Glasgow. We were both involved with the issue of damp housing and Cathy, along with Helen Martin were in the Easthall Tenants group who fought a brilliant campaign over this issue. Cathy is the most impressive woman I have ever met. She has always seen the bigger picture, and – been able to name it. She was talking about this “War without bullets” – a war fought with briefcases not guns – an attack on working class people [1]. At that time, not only did she and many other families in Scotland have to live in horrible damp housing conditions which caused so much ill-health, misery and expense but in addition – they were being blamed for it as well. Many of you will remember this time when tenants were blamed for the damp because they were boiling too many kettles, hanging up wet washing and so on. Their ill health was seen a result of their poor lifestyles and not jogging enough, nothing to do with poorly constructed housing. It is also as Cathy has always said – a psychological war – it made people think that it was something they were doing wrong, that perhaps it was their fault.

This war has intensified since then and become even more damaging and so tonight I want to describe what we are talking about here, give a few examples of how it operates and then look at some of the things that can help us in resisting this onslaught and make a stand against it.

The war. Most of you here tonight, particularly because you are working in the voluntary sector, will be aware of unpleasant things happening – waves of attacks on things we thought safe such as the welfare state and our public services. We’ve become aware of street protests, occupy movements in Europe and at home and of devastation in many communities. Why is this happening? Well a variety of views are presented. It’s the government; it’s the EU; it’s the bankers; it’s our huge public debt; it’s our unbalanced population with too many old people; immigration; it’s the high costs of benefits .

What is going on is a war conducted by those who believe in the orthodoxy of neo-liberal capitalism, unleashed in the late1970’s, early 1980’s under Thatcher and Reagan. It’s the belief that market forces are the key to economic growth that will eventually, after a lot of trickling, improve the general prosperity of all. To be effective, the market has to be free from the heavy hand of the state. No constraints that stop free trade flourishing. No impediments to the free flow of capital like ‘fussy’ regulations from a Nanny state. Public bodies de-regulated; the labour force made more ‘flexible’, un-locked from unions and employment conditions.

This is the only way forward and “There Is No Alternative”.So let’s remind ourselves of the first big salvo in his current war – the ‘Big Bang’in 1986, when Margaret Thatcher de-regulated banking in the City of London. The Big Bang certainly blew a hole in this old, elite, male club and let in a huge wave of investment banking. Barriers that had prevented foreign companies buying City firms were dismantled, and American companies snapped them up.

“it was, in every sense a revolution. It was messy and there was blood all over the place. Unlike most revolutions, it was imposed top down” [2] (Marcus Agius, former Barclays Bank chairman)

The Big Bang completely overturned the old ways of working and brought in a new banking culture. Ray Perman who wrote the story of “How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Scotland” [3]describes how the old guard at the Bank of Scotland were shocked by the new regime of HBOS pushing the sale of “products” down the throat of their customers in order to get their bonus, and a fixation with growing their market share at any price. With de-regulation, came the marketisation of anything that moved – driven through one sector after another.

And the war of attrition – the persistent privatisation of our public services; the imposition of PFI’s. Although in Scotland, we have not taken the full medicine – we have hung onto our NHS with more determination – the relentless push goes on. The outsourcing of public services has led to a huge growth of corporate power – private, unaccountable power. And on the other side of this particular balance sheet – the reduction of wages, working conditions, and job security – zero hours contracts- casualised labour.

The imposition of this business model not only changed structures and relationships but more insidiously, changed the language by which we began to think and talk of public services. When this began in the 1980’s, it seemed to me as though some strange spell had been cast on people to make them speak in this new way – railway guards suddenly calling us customers.

At that time I was lucky enough to be working in an independent project, and being pretty much my own boss, but when I went to meetings outside this “bunker”, I remember being struck- and at first highly amused -by this business language of ‘products’ and ‘customers’ being used in the community sector. This was at a time when the Tories were trying to introduce the market into the NHS in Scotland under Michael Forsyth I seem to remember – and we need to remind ourselves – before we had our own parliament. At one meeting I laughed, rather irreverently, when someone started talking about “purchaser provider splits”. It sounded to me like some new dance move. However the reaction made the laugh die in my throat. There was a sense of disapproval that I was mocking something that was going to “deliver” services more efficiently and that I was suddenly an outsider if I didn’t take it seriously. It was quite a disturbing feeling. I recall this incident to demonstrate how the psychological tactics of the war works. There are more obvious and violent attacks going on as I’ve pointed to, but it is through these shifts in the common determination of meanings, the little interchanges between us – the one to one – through the everyday communications- that the whole market ideology is being spread. But of course, it can work both ways- it can be the way that progressive ideas spread, and not imposed from the top but bubbling up from the grassroots. I’ll be coming back to that later.

Many of you in the Third Sector are quite aware of this and have battled against it for years. You’ve had to detail the numbers attending, the throughputs and so on. And we try to mount a few protests- but this is the strategy of a war of attrition. We are worn down, we are anxious for our community project or our service users. We try to be clever and continue the old but disguising it in the new business speak, but very slowly we find we have woken up and it is everywhere. And this is the most insidious aspect of this rotten war – it forces decent ordinary people to act in ways which support the whole onslaught. It makes train guards talk about customers; it makes managers of community projects fit their objectives into business language so that what starts off as frustrating and alien becomes the norm and most of us become unwittingly complicit in this take over.

And finally, when you think it couldn’t get any worse, we have a growing band of warlords! The growth of these huge corporations and private equity companies; of market traders and investment bankers, has resulted in an increasing number of extremely wealthy people who have immense power – the “super rich” as Robert Peston calls them in his book “Who Runs Britain”[4] . So how do they get so rich?

The key thing is to move quickly. In 2002, Philip Green bought Arcadia, the retail business with a few million pounds. It owns BHS, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, Topshop – most of the stores in Princes Street. Three years later Green paid himself a £1.2 billion dividend from the company. But as it so happed, just a little while before, his fleet- footed wife, in whose name the company had been registered, had popped over and become a resident of Monacco. Through this bit of fancy footwork – they avoided paying £300 million tax. Unbelievably, in 2010 the government enlisted him to head an external review of the coalition’s spending cuts aimed at cutting the £155bn deficit.

Jim Ratcliffe, one of the richest people in the UK, and owner of the private equity company INEOS is currently involved in disputes with the union in Grangemouth, who apparently have been really intimidating and severely affecting his business because they want to maintain the level of their wages. In 2010 Jim Ratcliffe asked the government to defer his VAT re-payment for a year. I’m sure something we would all like to do -perhaps tenants could ask this about the bedroom tax ?When they refused, he stormed off and moved his company headquarters and tax residence to Switzerland, saving him a tax bill of £380 million.

We maybe see a bit of a news headline about these incidents – and then they disappear off the 10 o’clock news and nothing further is mentioned. Unless, that is, you get an individual like Michael Forbes in Balmedie, Aberdeenshire, making their own stand against Donald Trump’s golf course and refusing to be intimidated or bullied or swapping his home and livelihood for money. Then we learn a little more about what is going on.

It’s hard to get your head around this perverted logic of the market. Basically, the rich get richer and richer and the tax base of the country is eroded – reducing the amount of money available for schools and hospital – those things we apparently can’t afford. And it’s all perfectly within the rules of course -the rules for the super-rich.

I call this legal thieving.

And what has this market fundamentalism brought us? What are the “outputs “or “outcomes”?

  • A global financial crisis and austerity cuts against the most vulnerable.
  • “Long lines of indebtedness, constructed by the City, which are completely beyond technical regulation and, as we see with the eurozone crisis, beyond political management”[5]
  • a “cloistered society” that turns over billions of dollars each day with its own rules, its own standards and references….and as an ex-senior banker remarked, “The fact is, after you start trading in millions and now billions of dollars, you have difficulty relating to real things” [6]

And this last quote illustrates an extremely disturbing effect of this war – like all wars, it can brutalise, not only those it affects but those who wage it.

So we have an out of touch, super rich, slightly deranged group of people, who live on another planet, have difficulty relating to real things, rampaging like global Barbarians, draining the tax base of countries, bullying governments, that if they don’t get what they want they will “pull out”; their fingers on the button of more drone attacks,

“refusing to pay the price of belonging in any meaningful sense to any nation or community – except the global community of the super rich”.[7]

Even the low wages they pay are now subsidised by the state. Half of those on benefits are the working poor whose employees do not provide a living wage.

I think the key question we need to ask today is – is this a time of “austerity” – or a time of profligacy and arrogance ?

And when this rotten system begins to implode – who has to take the brunt? Those who are most vulnerable in our society; who have the least power and resources to resist. This is a war because it causes deaths, early deaths, illness, suicides. We know it has caused – is causing- huge distress amongst those so ruthlessly targeted. The stories are tragic

We have seen the devastation in other countries in the EU – in Ireland, in Spain and in Greece.Greece, for example, has always had one of the lowest suicide rates in Europe, but its austerity cuts programme has triggered an increase of 45%.

The attack on the most vulnerable is also being waged by many sections of the media. It is dangerous territory. It creates a gulf between us. And the language of “welfare scroungers” and ”skivers” is deliberate and nasty. Worse – the drip drip drip begins to get into people’s heads. This is how successful this propaganda war has been: the average public perception is that 27% of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently. The reality, according to Government figures is 0.7%. [8]

Let us not be infected with this type of language. I know a few scroungers and skivers. – people who run off to a tax haven before they have to pay any tax on their profits. And what do we do to them? Make them look for proper work? Imprison them for stealing our money? Do we put them on sanctions, make them attend the benefits office for 35 hours a week to make sure they aren’t cheating the system? No – we give them knighthoods, or ask them to review spending cuts.

Knowing who the real enemies are, who is really responsible for this misery, is the first step in seriously resisting this onslaught – and we need to be serious about it – not overwhelmed.

It isn’t some huge inevitable economic disturbance; it’s not people with a bedroom for their carer or their dialysis unit; it’s not “welfare scroungers”. It’s greedy people grabbing and running away with their profits – as though they have no obligation to pay towards the services that have produced a healthy and educated workforce; for the transport links they utilise; for the energy they consume – all of which contributed to their wealth.

-those out of control investment bankers; the outsourcing and private equity companies and the politicians who support them.

– those government ministers who devise policies that have created huge inequalities that not only affect our mortality rates, the level of violence in our communities, our happiness,[9] but have pulled us apart, as a people, creating such a gulf between us that our common bonds are being broken.

Those of us who are better off are acting as a huge complacent “buffer” that muffles the sound of this war and its misery.

The big picture is grim. Neo-liberalism, a global economic crisis, all sound pretty intangible for many people, un- assailable. I think spelling out that it’s about real people making particular decisions enables us to be able to challenge and to begin to change things, rather than drown in common despair. And things are changing. There’s a whiff in the air – the tectonic plates are rumbling. As a person of mature years, I can remember the 1960’s and I haven’t felt anything as encouraging as that politically, until now. Something is going on. Significant things are surfacing- and it’s to these I now want to turn.

Control of Information

First of all we have a digital communication revolution that has changed our whole relationship to the control of information.

“This type of communication is horizontal, and it is networked. Spin and lies and inadvertent mistakes are easily challenged – and not just challenged but neutralised”[10]

It is being used very actively by all the groups and movements that sprung up across Europe after the crisis. It is also beginning to break the mainstream media’s dominance. For example, the way the referendum debate has been treated in the media demonstrates what I mean – it is blinkered, partial and sometimes downright patronising. It is the alternative social media sites who are bringing the debate to life. Websites like Bella Caledonia, (tagline ‘It’s time to get above ourselves’)Wings over Scotland (soaring above Scottish politics)and Newsnet are attracting over half a million unique visits each month. Independent sites such as Democracy Now! And Open Democracy are contributing information and new perspectives from across the world. So there is this unparalleled opportunity to connect in, contribute, to listen to other voices through these alternative media sites and publications. We are being given direct access to the bigger picture.

We need to know what these people are doing, what is really going on and we need to hear many different perspectives and opinions, not just the voices of the powerful.

So – Freedom of Information is very important. The violent reactions to Wikieleaks, to Chelsea Manning, or Edward Snowden demonstrate how much secrecy is a key issue here. It closes the lid on things we have a right to know. We all need to support the campaign to get the coverage of the Freedom of Information Scotland Act extended, so that it includes the outsourced bodies that provide our public services such as PFI contractors etc.

The importance of the Commonweal

Secondly, this war is intent on destroying the common fabric of our social support systems – our welfare state, our collectivity, and our mutuality – the commonweal. And why do they pound away at this? Because the commonweal represents our mutual strength.

So, particularly at this time, we need to articulate what we cherish – what we value in Scotland – and re-state our belief in the commonweal. Nye Bevan, the Welsh post-war Minister, described the NHS “an act of collective goodwill” – a phrase which I’ve always loved. It’s not just a fine sentiment, it conveys the crucial idea that we can build and shape our society on the principle of the common good. When we see its living embodiment in bricks and mortar, in institutions and services, it affirms on a daily basis, our collective commitment and our common humanity. It connects us rather than divides us – within the common good – we are all equal.

And that is why it is our secret weapon because its values are in direct opposition to the logic of the market. It’s no surprise to me that the use of the word the “Commonweal” is surfacing and finding a resonance across the country at this time. For example, a recent poll showed huge support in Scotland for the public ownership of key services – royal mail which we’ve just lost, but the railways and energy utilities[11]. Change is in the air.

And in those parts of Europe that are suffering much more than we are, the people are now organising to re-configure the commonweal as much as they can The people in Greece[12] and the” indignados” – the indignant citizens in Spain[13] who came out onto the streets to protest and occupy squares and buildings in 2011 are organising local exchange trading systems, collective kitchens, education classes, and volunteer movements providing free medical services for people without access to public health facilities. There must be some good supportive links we can build with them.

And significantly – many of these groups are experimenting with different kinds of democracy- assemblies, consultas, non-hierarchical , consensus agreements etc. And this brings me to the third significant stream that is running at the moment..

Democratic Muscle

Although this is an economic war, it is crucially a crisis of democracy .

To examine alternative economies, to strengthen the commonweal, to rein in the big corporations – we need to get involved in politics.The referendum debate has created exactly the kind of space we need to re-group, to re-think, to re-imagine and it has brought a possibility of change. I think we are very, very lucky to have this amazing opportunity. Other countries are watching what we will do with this opportunity, particularly at this time, when the neo-liberal order is beginning to crack. Whatever our political affiliations, I think we should acknowledge that it is Alex Salmond and the SNP who have brought us to this point.

Aside from party politics, there is a flourishing of groups in Scotland who have started the debate using social media to connect and communicate. The Radical Independence Campaign has been holding regular meetings in 18 branches across Scotland. “Changing Scotland” – Gerry Hassan and Jean Urquhart’s meetings in Ullapool; “So Say Scotland; “Demo Max”; The National Collective and other arts groups are all alive and kicking. Voluntary sector organisations such as the Scottish Community Alliance (SCA) hosting ‘The Big Vote’; Scottish Refugee Council; the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum and many others – all getting involved.

I think this impulse is connected to the protests and movements that have sprung up across Europe – it’s another indication that change is in the air.

Mary Kaldor who is leading a team at LSE tracking these political movements across Europe including the UK, says that it is

“one of those rare moments in history when subterranean politics ‘bubbles up’ to the surface. …These public displays are about a profound re-imagining of politics and democracy. But what is special about subterranean politics in 2011 and 2012 is their ‘resonance’, the way that they strike a chord in main-stream public opinion.”[14]

Years of consumerism have encouraged people to believe that “I can get what I want – when I want it” and dented our ability to think collectively. People turn up to a meeting and shout their piece, or answer a survey and then think – right that’s it – they should do what I want and if they don’t – they are all a bunch of wasters. We have to re-train ourselves to act as citizens in this process – not individual consumers whose whims are to be satisfied. I’m talking about a more mature politics – deliberative, discursive democratic discussions in public. The forming of opinions is as important as expressing them through debate in public settings.

We can’t be a passive audience in this debate- waiting for “them” to convince us. We need to construct the debate ourselves, argue about issues, listen to each other. I urge everyone, this next month to take yourselves out and into a meeting near you!

Making a stand, inspires others and it does take courage and imagination. Iceland, for example, has become an inspiration for many – the way it dealt with one of the worst banking crisis in history. But some of the details of that story I don’t think have had a lot of publicity, so to finish I would like to draw these out in order to show how the three aspects I’ve been talking about had a key role in Iceland taking such a significant stand.

I’m drawing from the Democracynow! website[15] – from a fascinating interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir the Icelandic member of Parliament who was also a volunteer with Wikieleaks. She came to prominence when it transpired that she had helped to put together the film of the American helicopter airstrikes against civilians in Baghdad that was released by Wikieleaks in 2009. I urge you to watch it.

As you know in 2008 Iceland’s three biggest banks failed, and its total debt jumped to 800% of GDP.

Firstly, there was huge pressure, some would describe as bullying, from the UK and Dutch governments to force Iceland to pay the debts from the crash of Icesave, the private bank which many UK authorities and charities had used because of its high interest rates. There were threatening noises about their application to join the EU and that they would block the IMF loan they needed. Senior members of the government at this point were being boxed into a corner and felt they had to accede to these demands and prepared a bill to go before Parliament. But here is when access to information becomes important.

The detail in the Memorandum that was being drawn up for them to pay these private bank debts was supposed to be kept secret but it was leaked – and it was one of the first leaks that Bradley Manning, decided to release (the American soldier now in prison who leaked information to Wikieleaks,) because he felt it was so unfair – such a David and Goliath situation.

Secondly, a Truth Commission had been set up to investigate the banking scandal and an hour after its 9 volume report came out, actors at the city theatre in Reykjavik held a free public reading of it. It took 45 actors five or six days of continuous reading, non-stop, day and night. It was available online as a continuous live stream, so people could understand what the banks had done. So Freedom of Information is playing a key role here.

Once the terms of the memorandum were made public, there were waves of protest from politicians and the public and demands for a referendum. In the first referendum 93% of the people voted against the terms of the bill. Saying “We will not pay for your crisis”. In the end there were two referendums, against a backcloth of continuing pressure from the Dutch and the UK. But with such a strong mandate from the people, the president was strong enough to resist this pressure, and refused to enact the bills. He had the confidence to let it be decided by EFTA -the European Free Trade Association court, which after many months cleared Iceland from the claims that had been made on it by these other countries. So here we see the effect of exercising democratic muscle- to keep the population close to their representatives.

With knowledge of what they faced, a huge majority of the population voted against paying for the bankers’ recklessness, for subsidising private debt which would have meant large cuts to their health and social-protection systems. In the ensuing crisis, the Icelandic government focused on protecting the Common weal – its social welfare system and it increased social welfare payments to its poorest citizens. The knowledge of the effect of any austerity programme on their social support systems produced a fierce defence of the commonweal.

American Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman says

“A funny thing happened on the way to economic Armageddon: Iceland’s very desperation made conventional behaviour impossible, freeing the nation to break the rules.Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net. Where everyone else was fixated on trying to placate international investors, Iceland imposed temporary controls on the movement of capital to give itself room to manoeuvre.”[16]

And the outcome

“Under Iceland’s universal healthcare system, no one lost access to care. In fact more money went into the system. We saw no rise in suicides or depressive disorders – and we looked very hard. And by 2011, Iceland, which was previously ranked the happiest society in the world, was top of that list again. Iceland now is booming; unemployment fell back to below 5% and GDP growth is above 4% – far exceeding any of other European countries that suffered major recessions.”[17]

So, drawing from the combined power of key information being made available, strong democratic pressure and a fierce defence of their social support systems, tiny Iceland made a stand. Similarly, Michael Forbes – one individual – made a stand -against the bullying of Donald Trump. In each of these examples, the refusal to be prised away from things you value, and concede to something that is grossly unjust, were immensely powerful acts. Their actions are now applauded, their stories are being re-told through social media networks videos/films. They are building a counter-hegemony against neo-liberalism. I’d like to finish with a quote from Raymond Williams, the Welsh academic and novelist.

“It is only in the shared belief and insistence that there are practical alternatives, that the balance of forces and chances begins to alter. Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope.”[18]

The untimely death of Stephen Maxwellwas very cruel. He would have relished this fightand he would have been in the front line, taking a quiet but strong, moral stance, helping us think more clearly -with integrity and with courage. We have his legacy – let’s build on this. We know there are possibilities for building Scotland into a country we can be proud of. Let’s join with others in making a stand.

References accessed 20 November 2013


[2] How the Big Bang created new life in the Square Mile Alistair Osborne Article in Daily Telegraph 26th October 2011

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/8849116/How-the-Big-Bang-created-new-life-in-the-Square-Mile.html

[3] Perman, R “How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Scotland” Birlinn 2012

[4] Peston, R “ Who Runs Britain” Hodder & Stoughton 2007

[5] Professor Karel Williams et al Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change

After the Great Complacence: Financial Crisis and the Politics of Reform. OUP, 2011

[6] BBC News business 5th September 2012 “How banking culture transformed over the decades” Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-19463343

[7] ibid

[8] http://www.tuc.org.uk/social-issues/child-poverty/welfare-and-benefits/tax-credits/support-benefit-cuts-dependent

[9] Wilkinson, R.and Pickett K The Spirit Level 2009

[10] Paul Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, Verso 2012

[13] Postill, J. 2014. Democracy in the age of viral reality: a media epidemiography of Spain’s indignados movement. Ethnography 15 (1).

[14]The Bubbling up of subterranean Politics in EuropeMary Kaldoret al Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit

London School of Economics and Political Science June 2012

[17] Stuckler,D .,Sanjay,B The Body Economic: Austerity Kills 2013

[18] Williams,R Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, SocialismVerso1989