In the past week I have personally witnessed three incidents that illustrate Britain in the 21st Century, and Scotland’s future if we remain within the British Union.
Scotland has not voted Tory for 50 years, we have more giant pandas than we have Tory MPs (2 to 1 in favour of the pandas), yet we have a Tory-led Government imposing its will on us. The UK Tory-Lib Dem Coalition Government in London determines policy in such vital areas as taxation, the economy, trade and industry, social security, pensions, foreign affairs and defence.
The Tory-led, London-based government follows an agenda that provides for the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer; the supposed economic recovery is based on yet another unsustainable ‘housing bubble’ in London, which is actually just property inflation; many pensioners struggle to survive on one of the lowest state pensions in the developed world; the UK is still seen as a sabre-rattling, war-mongering poodle of America, prepared to embark on illegal wars if that is what the US wants; and those who find themselves without work are demonised as worthless, idle spongers.
All of the above – the policy agenda of the Tories - was soundly rejected by the people of Scotland, and has been since 1955, yet for most of the past 50 years we have had Tory Governments. That is not democracy, but it is Scotland’s future if we remain within the British Union: we would continue to reject the Tories at the ballot box, but would continue to have them imposed on us by the electorate of England.
The British Labour Party (which is the only Labour Party registered with the Electoral Commission – the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party doesn’t exist) has become such a Tory-clone that its Shadow Ministers are pandering to a right-wing agenda by promising continued austerity if Labour was to win the next UK Election in 2015. Opinion polls show it is unlikely a Labour Party led by Ed Miliband will win the UK Election, but even if it did there would be no change for Scotland: we would still have a government committed to the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer (as happened under the last Labour administrations led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), and we would still have a government that attacks the unemployed, blaming them for their predicament instead of the failed economic policies of successive UK Governments and the corrupt dealings of bankers in the City of London.
In October of last year, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Rachel Reeves MP, promised her party would be tougher than the Tories when it comes to slashing the social security bill. Ms Reeves’ comments committed Labour to reducing spending on social security irrespective of need, which means that people will have benefits slashed or removed even when they need them to survive. That is what is currently happening under the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government and Labour has made clear it will continue to happen under them.
Rachel Reeves went further, removing any doubt there might be about just how Tory a future Labour Government would be, when she said, “If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forego your benefits”. Irrespective of your circumstances, skills, childcare commitments or ambitions, if a future British Labour Government offered you a job – any job - and you didn’t take it, then they would instantly stop your benefits, plunging you and any dependents into destitution.
Tories, Liberal Democrats, Labour, UKIP - all of the British Unionist political parties offer the same dire future.
In the past week, the reality of a political system that punishes the poor was made very clear to me. A family member was sanctioned by the UK Department for Work and Pensions. She was instantly left with no income and has had to depend on support from family to prevent her from starving.
Without going into detail, the sanction was imposed because a faceless ‘case assessor’ somewhere within the UK government department didn’t believe her reason for being unemployed. The ‘case assessor’ took the decision without speaking to my family member or her previous employer. The decision, apparently, was simply plucked out of the air.
The sanction will be reversed, eventually, because my family member can prove her circumstances, and could have proved them to the ‘case assessor’ if they had bothered to ask before stopping her only source of income.
What happened to my family member is happening to thousands of others every week, many of whom do not have family support or the ability to fight the decision. I witnessed one such person take out his frustration on the wrong target, the young woman who happened to be the staff member at the main desk in a Jobcentre. The man had been informed of a sanction by post that morning. He was instantly without any income and could not feed himself or his family, or pay his rent. So frustrated was he that he screamed at the young Jobcentre worker, “Will I just go an f***ing kill myself? Is that what you want? That will save you a few bob!”
Last week I also witnessed a woman break down and cry in front of her two children, as she begged for help to feed them. She had walked into the office of a private company that has a UK Government contract to ‘assist’ the unemployed back into work. The woman pleaded for a job, so that she could feed her children but there were no jobs available. She had already been to the Jobcentre and they had sent her to the private company. The staff offered what assistance they could - helping her compile a CV - and directed her towards agencies offering more direct social support in terms of ensuring her children did not go hungry.
The previous week, Glasgow’s Evening Times newspaper reported from the Maryhill Foodbank, where they support around 140 people a week.
The Evening Times reported Foodbank worker Julie Webster saying, “I have worked in social work for 20 years, so I am pretty hardened but we had a family come in on a Tuesday at 3pm having not eaten since the previous Friday. There had been a problem with benefits and because it was a Bank Holiday weekend the mum had no money for food for her or her two children. I watched the mum pick up and put down can after can, wondering what she was doing, before I realised she was looking for one with a ring pull. She ripped the top off and started eating the beans with her hands, she was so hungry. At that point I had to go to the toilets and have a cry.”
This is Britain in the 21st Century: this is what will continue to be inflicted on Scotland if we reject the opportunity presented by independence, if we reject the chance to run our own country and implement policies that put the interests of people before the profits of multi-national corporations.
Independence is not some nebulous political concept: it is the catalyst that will give us the full powers we need to build a better, fairer country for all the citizens of Scotland.
Independence isn’t about politics, it’s about people.