Friday, 23 August 2013

We're re-living dark days of Victorian era

Next year will be significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Independence Referendum on September 18.

For the first-time ever, the people of Scotland will be asked our opinion on whether or not we should remain merely a region within the British Union or retake our political independence as a normal, independent nation.

Back in 1707, the vast majority of Scots had no say as the independent parliament of Scotland ceased to exist, with political and economic powers transferred to the English parliament in London. What was described as a union was actually England colonising its northern neighbour. What England had been unable to achieve by military power was finally secured through financial clout. As ordinary Scots rioted in opposition, the only people with a vote, the so-called Scots aristocracy, lined their pockets with English gold as they sold Scotland to England. Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, described the Scots traitors as “such a parcel ‘o rogues in a nation”.

Next year, those of us living in Scotland – aged 16 and over, and whose names appear on the Electoral Register – will be the first people in over three-centuries to have our say on our country’s constitutional future. No-one, from 1707 to 2014, has had this opportunity: we can be the independence generation, the people who right the wrong inflicted on Scotland 306 years ago by self-centred and greedy Lords, Earls and Barons.

Also in 2014 we will see the Commonwealth Games come to Glasgow, and we will mark 100 years since the outbreak of the catastrophic human carnage that was the First World War.

The year of 1914 also saw publication of a book that, 100 years later, is still unsurpassed in explaining the corrupt and exploitative nature of the capitalist economic system. Today, The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists by Robert Tressell (real name Robert Noonan) is as relevant as it ever was.

Tressell’s work described the poverty and deprivation endured by the working class at the turn of the last century. Workers had no rights and were at the beck and call of employers who paid poverty-level wages, while amassing huge wealth for themselves.

In the intervening century since publication of The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists, hard-fought social and political battles resulted in workers securing basic rights, such as a minimum wage, the right to refuse working excessive hours, sickness benefit, holiday entitlement and an end to the fear that unscrupulous bosses could sack you if one day they decided your face simply did not fit.

However, under the guise of tackling the economic crash caused by immoral capitalists chasing ever-greater profits, British political parties have introduced legislation and policies that have greatly undermined the basic rights won by the workers of previous generations. The value of wages has been eroded as pay has stagnated or been cut, while inflation – the cost of the things we all have to buy, such as food – has soared.

The big ‘austerity’ con has blamed the public sector when, in fact, it was privately-owned banks that brought the economy to its knees. Just last week it was revealed that almost half-a-million public sector workers have lost their jobs since the banking collapse of 2008, while bankers continue to pay themselves six-figure bonuses, in addition to already massive salaries. The con, perpetrated by British political parties – Tory, Labour and Lib Dem – and eagerly supported by a tame media, states that public sector job losses have been replaced by over one-million posts created in the private sector. What those bare figures do not reveal, though, is that the private sector jobs replacing full-time, well-paid posts in the public sector are primarily part-time, low-waged jobs with many workers on Zero-Hours Contracts.

These contracts basically take us back to the days so poignantly described by Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Once again we have workers entirely at the beck and call of employers. Women and men on Zero-Hour Contracts have no guaranteed hours, no basic pay, and no entitlement to work-related benefits, such as sick-pay, holidays or redundancy payments.

Until recently, the UK Office of National Statistics estimated that around 250,000 workers in the UK were ‘employed’ under these contracts, but the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has since revised that figure upward to more than one-million. That means there are at least one-million women and men who are ‘contracted’ to a specific employer, but don’t know from day-to-day whether they will actually be given any work or pay. While ‘contracted’ to an employer, workers on a Zero-Hour Contract must be ‘on call’ and must make themselves available at any time, irrespective of issues such as childcare responsibilities or other family commitments.

Zero-Hour Contracts are not new, they have been around for years, which makes Labour’s objections to them sound very hollow – they formed the UK Government for 13 years and did nothing about them (nor, for that matter, did Labour do anything about the draconian anti-trade union laws introduced by the Thatcher Tory Government).

Within the British Union, the economy was trashed by unregulated banks and financial institutions. Within the British Union, Scottish workers have seen wage-levels and job-security significantly diminished. Within the British Union, ordinary women and men today have terms and conditions of employment not seen since the dark days of the Victorian era.

According to the British unionist partners in the Better Together campaign – Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, UKIP – this is as good as it gets. Next year, in the Independence Referendum, if we vote ‘No’ we will be giving consent to Westminster UK Governments to impose more of the same.

Alternatively, we can make history as the independence generation: we can vote ‘Yes’ , retake our political independence and build a better, fairer country for all the people of Scotland.

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