The debate about Scotland’s future as an independent country has opened up arguments about how to get rid of poverty and inequality in Scottish society. It has become a focus for wider social discontent as people look for an alternative to Tory austerity.
Scottish first minister Alex Salmond recently commented on the fact that Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. He claimed Scotland does “not have such extremes of wealth”.
Yet a new book, Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond exposes this myth. It confirms the obvious—that Scotland, like any other capitalist society, is scarred by extremes of wealth.
Income inequality in Scotland and Britain as a whole is among the worst in Europe. Discounting the rest of Britain, only seven European Union countries are more unequal than Scotland. These are Latvia, Bulgaria, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Romania and Lithuania.
Some 870,000 people in Scotland live in poverty—17 percent of the population—including one in five children. Every local authority has a ward where child poverty exceeds 20 percent.
Fuel poverty and food banks are on the rise, as they are elsewhere in Britain. Tory austerity will only make things worse. In Scotland alone up to 100,000 more children will be pushed into poverty by 2020.
But what about the other extreme?
Scotland’s richest 100 men and women increased their combined wealth from £18 billion in 2011 to £21 billion in 2013. The most affluent households in Scotland are 273 times richer than the poorest households.
And as the rich have cashed in since the economic crisis, real wages for workers have fallen along with the number of full time jobs. Part time work, underemployment and long term unemployment have all risen.
Although similar figures apply to Britain as a whole, only Scotland has a referendum to become an independent country. This can put debates about what kind of society people want at the centre stage of mainstream political discussion.
The problem is not that there is an overall shortage of resources, but that wealth is not distributed fairly. Poverty in Scotland calls for a new Scottish rate of taxation to be used to tackle inequality.
It argues that to address child poverty we have to make the rich pay.
Real pay down £30 a week
Average pay has fallen by more than 8 percent in real terms since the end of 2009, according to the Scottish government. That’s more than £30 a week. There are big regional differences—in some areas average wages fell 15 percent in real terms, while in others they have gone up. Part time workers have lost more than £1 an hour.
Fairer tax can cut inequality
The richest 20 percent of households in Scotland earn over six times more than the poorest 20 percent. The government could raise income tax by just 3 percent for those earning over £35,000 a year and give the cash to pensioner households. That would bring the difference down to five and a half times. But SNP leader Alex Salmond (above) wants to cut taxes.
Independence support grows
Some 47 percent of people who know which way they will vote in the referendum now back independence, according to poll results published last weekend. That’s the highest pro-independence vote in any poll yet. Since last year Better Together has seen the lead of its No campaign drop from 24 points to just six.
About the book
Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond, is published by the Child Poverty Action Group in association with The Open University and others
It is available to buy from bit.ly/1cOV1q3
The Open University has free resources around the independence debate and social welfare at bit.ly/PxUN1m