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January 16, 2013

A Just Scotland

Over the next two years we can expect to see a plethora of discussion papers, position statements and the like, all with a focus on the BIG question which will start to loom large as autumn 2014 comes into view. Towards the end of last year, STUC published an interim report – A Just Scotland –  after having taken soundings from members around the country.  The report lays down some serious challenges for both camps, and makes a plea for a much improved and better informed public debate. Worth a look.  


At its Annual Congress in April 2012, STUC agreed to undertake a wide ranging consultation with its members and across Scotland’s communities on Scotland’s constitutional future. This reflected its view that there is a duty on civil organisations to ensure that it is not left to elected politicians alone to frame and conduct the debate on Scotland’s future. 

Historically, STUC and its affiliated unions have had a major part to play in the debate over Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. As one of the architects of the Constitutional Convention and having campaigned for the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, STUC is widely recognised as being a progressive force in Scotland’s democratic development and a champion of devolution. 

However, things do not stay the same. Scottish unions have changed significantly in the past two decades. The same is true of Scotland’s communities. Activism manifests itself in different ways. Community empowerment and democratic accountability have diminished. New communities of interest have been formed and communication methods have changed. However, a strong ethos of solidarity and collectivism remains. 

The starting point for the discussion was to allow individuals, trade union members and their families to be empowered to consider Scotland’s constitutional future within the wider context of the collective values we hold. Thus, for STUC, the referendum debate needs to be seen, not just as a means of discussing the form of Scotland’s constitutional arrangements, but as an exciting opportunity to reawaken a debate on social justice and equality, to talk about the sort of Scotland we want to see. 

A Just Scotland is the starting point rather than the end point of that process. STUC has not reached a point where it is able to definitively recommend a Yes or No answer to the independence question. 

It was never imagined that at this stage it would. There are, however, some key questions which STUC believes will help to shape the views of its members and some major challenges which both sides of the debate must meet. 


The first is a general challenge. To hold a full and frank debate, we need more information and less sloganeering. A minority within the STUC discussion process were both clear about how they intended to vote and what they believed the economic, social and democratic consequences would be. A greater number, whether or not they leaned towards a yes or a no, voiced frustration at the level of information and analysis currently available and the overall poor quality of the debate. 

The second challenge, again for both sides of the debate, is to persuade us that social justice is more achievable as a consequence of their chosen constitutional option. Inevitably the focus should be on Scotland, but the impact of change on the countries within the rest of the UK, as well as Europe and wider world can also be part of that discourse. Neither side of the debate can claim with authority to be the ‘voice for social justice’. The Yes Campaign derives considerable support from sections of the business community which aspire to a low tax, low regulation economic and social model with diminished social protection. The ‘Better Together’ campaign includes the Scottish Tories. In both campaigns there is a tension between the desire to project a vision of social justice and the view that policies are a matter for the post-2016 elected governments. STUC recognises that the policies of elected Scottish Governments cannot be wholly predicted, however, it is not enough to ‘wait and see’. The result of the referendum will in large part be conditioned by what people expect will be achieved and the post-referendum future direction of Scotland in the short and long-term, whether independent or devolved, will be influenced by how the debate develops between now and October 2014. 

The third challenge is for the Yes Campaign or to the political parties which support it. A Just Scotland participants cited concern at mixed messages emanating from the campaign. A central argument for independence has been rejection of the UK approach to taxation, welfare and a range of Coalition policies relating to social justice. The First Minister said at SNP Conference in October 2012 that only independence could protect the social fabric of Scotland. However, on other occasions, a low tax economic model with ‘growth at all costs’ has appeared to be the approach with current or increased spending imagined to flow from increased GDP not redistribution. It is fair to say that our members will need to hear of a more detailed vision for fairness in an independent Scotland if the Yes campaign is to succeed. 

The fourth challenge is for the ‘Better Together’ campaign and specifically for the Scottish Labour Party. There was concern and, on occasion, outright anger at some of the economic, social and international policies which have been pursued by government, particularly at the UK level. ‘Not being the Tories’ and negative messages about the SNP will not suffice and members will require a clear steer on how economic and social justice will be achieved at all levels of government and to be convinced that the Scottish Labour party intends to play an active and radical role in achieving this. Equally, whilst not necessarily convinced of the ‘Devo Max’ model as broadly outlined by the Scottish Government, there is clear support amongst those who are opposed to independence (or undecided) for significant additional powers for the Scottish Parliament. Detailed attention to this must be given by the ‘Better Together’ parties in the next period and meaningful proposals brought forward. 

In addition to posing these challenges to the campaigns, this interim report, leaning heavily on views gleaned from those involved in the AJS discussion, looks at the key areas which will impact upon a socially just future for Scotland. The report also references the developing Scotland wide debate and views received both from affiliated organisations and a range of other organisations. 

STUC hopes that the interim report will provide a basis for further public discussion. For its part, STUC will organise a range of further discussions, reports and events concentrating on the detail of some of the issues raised whilst continuing to focus on the social justice as the outcome we aim to achieve. It will also participate in events organised by other community and campaigning organisations which share our approach. 

For a copy of the full report and associated papers, click here.