The abuse of social democracy

“Scotland has, over many decades, developed a more social democratic political culture than exists certainly in the south of England,” opines Iain Macwhirter in “Disunited Kingdom,” his compelling account of the referendum campaign. Young people, he says, “increasingly see independence as the only viable challenge to globalisation and the dominance of neoliberalism.” And he cites the “apparent success of the Nordic model in providing a social democratic escape route from globalisation” as reviving faith in radical action.

The account may be excellent but the analysis is, like much of political commentary in Scotland, flawed, even lazy. Scots are, according to both the British and Scottish social attitudes surveys, marginally more “left-wing” than the English just as they are slightly more “Europhilic.” (A YouGov survey of mid-May 2015 for the Sunday Times is much more clear-cut: Scots are far more likely to see themselves as “left” compared with the English and Welsh but this finding is unusually different.) Scottish voters, however, still managed to back UKIP in sufficient numbers at the European elections in May 2014 to send a (single) MEP for that party to Strasbourg/Brussels.

More critically, “social democracy” is bandied about as a defining characteristic of Scottish politics – without ever being defined. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is widely praised as “a leading European social democrat” – again, without any content to that phrase. In David Torrance’s workmanlike biography, published earlier this year, she is said to be searching for “much more than just Salmondism with a social conscience.”  The very unofficial biographer quotes her (via the FT) as saying: ‘I am a social democrat, I believe in pursuing greater equality…and social justice” before going on to talk up a “vibrant business base” generating the “wealth that makes that possible.”

More recently, at Tynecastle Stadium launching the Scottish Business Pledge, she said:

Essentially, our economic strategy sets out a vision of an economy based on innovation rather than insecurity; high skills, not low wages; enhanced productivity instead of reduced job security. We want to climb the global competitiveness rankings on quality, rather than racing to the bottom on costs.”

This, again, hardly defines social democracy and her speech was firmly placed within the mainstream of current institutional economic thinking on the perils of inequality (IMF/OECD) and the merits of boosting both productivity and exports.

In most Scottish political discourse “social democracy” appears to be a pre-Third Way emphasis on a benign state intervening to mitigate the worst side-effects of capitalist markets, to redistribute some wealth and income and to provide a protective cover for people in need. It is sustained government spending backed by relatively high and progressive rates of taxation: obviously so ‘vieu jeu‘ the Scottish Government hasn’t touched such levers in the last eight years, especially the latter though it can do so.

Social democracy is, more obviously, defined by what it isn’t: the craven accommodation with neoliberalism, light-touch regulation of the financial sector, cuts in welfare and, most recently, austerity that characterised/s New Labour and other (old Second International) ‘democratic socialist’ parties such as the German SPD, Spain’s PSOE, Greece’s Pasok and, now, France’s PS. It is sometimes seen as “looking after the interests and needs” of the industrialised working class and its unions – when these are in steep decline, not least in Scotland, under the impact of globalisation/the new international division of labour.

Rarely – Gerry Hassan is an exception – is the crisis of “social democracy” or, at least, traditional social democrat parties, acknowledged, let alone analysed. The SPD may be in co-habiting power in Berlin but its electoral base is barely above 20%. The Dutch PvdA, prone to lecturing Syriza, Tsipras and Varoufakis, on the need for further austerity and impoverishment of the Greek poor, is in an even worse predicament. Even the much-lauded Nordic model is faltering – viz the rise of the Far Right in Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

All of this suggests that the very concept of social democracy ought to be re-examined, if not reinvented, to make it fit for the future – and offer hope to millions punished for a crisis that was no fault of their own and excluded from tasting even the tiniest trickle of wealth diverted from the floods of money pouring into the mauls of the already super-rich and the over-mighty global corporations owing no societal allegiance or accountability, not even to their shareholders. It is these – not “markets” – that are at then heart of the neoliberal agenda and its main beneficiaries.

Belatedly, seven or eight years after the Great Recession began in the wake of the banking crisis, social democratic thinkers are starting to revaluate what “social democracy” means – and, indeed, the role of regulated, democratic and diverse markets, recapturing the very idea as more than just the enrichment of individuals/corporations and, rather, the equitable delivery of goods and services to the many.  But little or none of that thinking has percolated into Scottish political discourse where incantation (“ending austerity/poverty/inequality”) is preferred to insight, let alone insurrection against corporations and financiers/rentiers.

We should come clean: the fight to reverse inequality – not least in educational outcomes and opportunities – has not even begun; redistribution has been a chimera; poverty is enduring. Rethinking social democracy, rather than just fantasising about it, is a pre-condition for beginning that necessary process. Meantime, it would be good if we stopped using the phrase entirely.


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