Those who define themselves as on the left and argue in favour of Scottish Independence and a ‘Yes’ vote in the forthcoming referendum depend upon two major planks to their argument. The first is that the UK is a rotten place to live, and the second is that its institutions are so ineffective or even corrupt as to be beyond reform (even when including devolution.)
In making the first of these assertions, nationalists also frequently use the argument that opposition to independence offers no positive case for staying in the UK. This is of course nonsense, as the following will hopefully show, by using a small measure of observation and reason plus some recent research. (The second assertion can be tackled in a later piece.)
The case based on observation and reason was emphasised by a young friend who went to study in Argentina for a year: he has since trained in a liberal law firm and works in human rights cases, so his lefty-liberal credentials are duly intact.
On his return he was quick to recognise the misapprehensions of the UK left for progressive movements in South America. The perception was that Chavez and his fellow socialists were decidedly more radical than they actually appear to be when seen close-up.
Above all, their ambitions – especially when these genuinely reflected the will of the people – were headed by such things as the rule of law; democratic control of the legislature and executive; full and equal human, political, and civil rights; adequate health care free at the point of delivery; and an adequate system of social welfare and pensions. In other words, what they are seeking to achieve is a society very much like the UK.
A complementary argument is to look at one of the countries most loved by the myopic left in the UK – Cuba. Frequently, those who have taken a holiday there return and tell us that the people are well-educated, with a great healthcare system, and that they are above all happy and supportive of the regime.
However, there are two big and rather obvious arguments which the returning holidaymakers do not like to hear as sceptical responses.
The first case is to recall the evidence of close inspection of statistics widely praised in the case of other dictatorships, for instance, of the eastern European Stalinist states. A great example is the former DDR, and Jonathan Steele’s Socialism With A German Face told us that East Germany was a high productivity workers’ paradise. It is possible that Steele was reporting what he had found in the DDR as he found it, but common sense tells us that the statistical information held by a totalitarian society is not to be trusted. For example, if someone’s social privilege (or even their life) depends on a certain level of productivity, their return will be as liable to be falsified as it would be if they were bankers calculating their own bonus in a capitalist country.
As the old communist bloc joke went “our definition of a job is when someone pretends to work and the state pretends to pay them.” The same degree of falsehood is possible in health and literacy reporting: “statistics is when the state sets us a quota, and we pretend it has been met. Then the state pretends to the world that this is true.”
The second argument is to ask why, if Cuba is really wonderful, so many people wish to leave, and are willing to pay great amounts of money and take severe risks to do so. The question begged is: “why have people not tried to reach Cuba by sailing on li-los and bath-tubs, rather than to get away?”
This brings us back to the UK, because in contrast, people take the same kinds of risks and pay the same very high costs in cash and life to get to the UK as they do to get away from Cuba.
The vast majority of migrants entering the UK do so legally, but there are those who subject themselves to the same dangers, such as occasional tragic cases of people who are found in aircraft landing gear compartments, or fall to their death from them on the approach to our airports. Likewise, people will pay large sums to people-traffickers, with little chance of success, as shown by the many illegal immigrants who are detected at ports of entry.
When these are added to the many more legal immigrants to the UK, it is easy to see that we live in a popular country, which people from all over the world consider offers an outstanding standard of living.
The recent research findings which back this up, and which provide more detail, have been published by Professor Michael E. Porter of Harvard Business School. (Professor Porter is a global expert in economic competitiveness, whose work on clusters and supply chain relationships is used as the orthodox model for local economic development worldwide.)
Recently, Porter has concluded that “…The Arab Spring of 2011 and the challenges in Mexico over the last decade, have illustrated the shortcomings of economic growth as a proxy for social progress. … In both business and economic development, our understanding of success has been incomplete.”
In order to put this right, he has set up an integrated index which takes comparable data and rates countries according to three sets of measurement criteria, which are then aggregated into a Social Progress Index. The three headings are fairly predictable and certainly elementary: Basic Human Needs; Foundations of Wellbeing; and Opportunity.
What may surprise many, and especially those who disparage the British state and its institutions (but not the UK’s immigrants and would-be immigrants) is that the UK is placed 2nd of 50 countries worldwide, including 11 in Europe plus the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and all of the BRIC countries, and only marginally behind Sweden.
In Basic Human Needs (Nutrition and Basic Medical Care; Air, Water and Sanitation; Shelter; and Personal Safety), the UK rates 6th. This is behind Japan, Germany, Canada, Switzerland and Sweden, but ahead of the USA (7th), France (9th), Australia (10th), and Spain (12th).
In Foundations of Wellbeing (Access to Basic Knowledge; Access to Information and Communications; Health and Wellness; and Ecosystem Sustainability) the UK rates 2nd, behind Switzerland alone, and notably above for example, Sweden (3rd), Japan (5th), Canada (11th), and Australia (16th).
In Opportunity (Personal Rights; Access to Higher Education; Personal Freedom and Choice; and Equity and Inclusion) the UK rates 5th, behind the USA, Sweden, Australia and Canada, but ahead of all of the other European countries in the survey, e.g., Switzerland (7th), Spain (6th), Germany (10th), and France (11th) plus Japan (15th).
The Social Progress Index shows that the UK is the top country in the world for Air, Water and Sanitation; Health and Wellness; and Personal Rights; and that in Europe, the UK is the leader in Access to Basic Knowledge, 2nd for Personal Rights and for Equity and Inclusion.
There is of course another message, which is that other countries have their advantages just as the UK has some weaknesses, notably in Nutrition and Basic Medical Care (11th), Shelter (9th), Ecosystem Sustainability (32nd), Access to Higher Education (12th) and Personal Freedom (9th).
In the context of the Scottish independence debate, it is interesting to note that each of these areas of comparative weakness are either wholly or largely devolved to the Holyrood parliament: if Scotland really wishes to be even an even better place than the UK, it has the responsibilities and powers in the critical areas already. It is the responsibility of those who seek change to show us that change it is needed: in this case, the Scottish government needs no further powers, just political will and effective policies and delivery.
Conversely, there is no room for complacency even in those areas where the UK excels, especially as a Conservative government will always go as far as it can to undermine and limit social progress – although such progressive achievements are so deeply ingrained in British life that even the Tories feel compelled to assure us (duplicitously, it transpires) that the NHS and pensioners are safe in their hands.
For social democrats and others on the left, it is essential to maintain their political will to preserve what is the best in Britain, and what is the envy of so many others.
These are aims of social justice and equality, which bear no relation to narrow or sectarian interests, for example nationalists who must talk down the UK, or the soi-disant left which must belittle the achievements made overwhelmingly by the Labour governments periodically elected by the British people.
The first step in doing so is to take heed of the evidence (including that presented by Professor Porter) that the UK has a high quality social and economic fabric which is worth protecting. The job in hand is to work hard to ensure that the Tories pay the electoral cost for those policies which threaten that fabric to any degree. And the ultimate step is to develop these conditions and benefits so that they are shared amongst the widest possible number and the greatest possible range of our fellow citizens.