Thursday 4 March 2021

Is there a case for the Union? 3: Solidarity


One of the other arguments often used in support of the continuation of the UK is the idea that the parts of the UK are economically stronger together; that any weakness in some parts can be addressed by fiscal transfers from other parts. In theory, it’s a good argument, based on the concept of social solidarity under which no part of the population should be allowed to fall behind. It’s a point which Wales’ First Minister majored on in an article for the National this week. The weakness of the argument is that it reflects what they want us to believe, rather than what actually happens. Drakeford was reduced to talking about what he believes should happen rather than reflecting the objective reality. If I wanted to use that argument to bolster the union, I wouldn’t start by diverting funds away from Wales and Scotland.

In practice, we have an economy which sucks the lifeblood out of most parts of the UK in order to feed the greed of one small corner. This is nothing new; the difference in wealth levels between London and the South-East on the one hand and most of the rest of the UK on the other isn’t a ‘bug’ of the economic system, it’s an inherent feature. It’s tempting for independentistas to see this as about England on the one hand vs Wales and Scotland on the other, but it isn’t as simple as that. The differences between the regions of England are also enormous, and even within London – nominally the richest part of the UK – there are significant pockets of serious poverty. Inequality is baked into the way in which the UK operates.

Labour tell us that we simply need to replace a Tory government with a Labour one, but decades of experience shows that that makes little difference. This isn’t just about a lack of political will, important though that is. It’s about an economic system which naturally concentrates wealth in the hands of a few based predominantly in one part of the country and which necessarily requires the relative impoverishment of others for its ‘successful’ operation. That isn’t something which can be ‘solved’ by electing a different party in England, it’s a fundamental characteristic of the whole economic system. Even to the limited extent that there is any effort to spread the wealth outwards, there is an accompanying expectation that those left in a relatively impoverished position show their ‘gratitude’ for the crumbs they are given, making it look and feel more like charity than solidarity. If I were looking for a strong argument for the union which would appeal to those currently inclined to support independence, I wouldn’t try and base it on any theoretical concept of social solidarity across the UK, at least not until I’d been able to demonstrate that it actually works in practice.

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