It will undoubtedly be remembered as the year of Covid19. The year of social distancing and unprecedented restrictions on personal freedoms. The year when isolation from extended family and friends was the norm.
Daily statistics told the story of premature deaths and thousands hospitalised by a nasty, indiscriminate, and deadly new airborne virus that was determined to wreak havoc in country after country, forcing new conceptions of normality. 2020 has been predominantly a terrible year. Yet amid the heartache, distress, and disorientation many fundamental truths have been uncovered in the last twelve months.
The NHS and care workers, the teachers and delivery drivers, the supermarket workers and pharmacy staff. They are the key workers in society. They are the workers who enrichen us with their daily contributions. They are indeed essential and deserving of proper remuneration, not the overpaid and over hyped bankers, stockbrokers, and politicians. The crimes committed against public services and public sector workers after the last public finances crisis of 2008 must not be allowed to be repeated in 2021.
The UK had suffered ten years of brutal public service cuts prior to 2020 as the political representatives of the rich and powerful did the bidding of their masters and ensured the nurses, care workers, fire fighters, pensioners, unemployed and low paid workers in general paid the massive cost of bailing out the banks and financial institutions who caused the economic crash of 2008/09. It was called austerity and could be defined as punishing the poorest and most vulnerable for the greed and economic mismanagement of the rich.
UK Rewarded Bankers While Others Jailed Them
Countries like Iceland, Spain and Ireland jailed banking bosses responsible for the greed fuelled frenzy of venal, irresponsible, and unsustainable lending practices which bankrupted large parts of the world in 2008 but UK Tory governments chose to punish the victims of the crash rather than the culprits. Indeed, obscene salary and bonuses packages were still being paid after the financial crash and public bail out. Royal Bank of Scotland received an initial £20 billion to save it from liquidation but still paid £1 billion in bonuses to it’s greedy executives. By 2016 the level of bonuses paid out by British banks and financial institutions climbed by billions to surpass the levels pre-the 2008 crash.
Ordinary workers paid dearly for the last economic crisis in 2008. They must not be made to pay for the Covid19 crisis.
In February 2020, the average UK weekly wage reached £474 compared to £473 in March 2008, a real reduction in income for most workers. But the price of food, gas, water, electricity, housing, transport, and other essentials has rocketed. Increased poverty in such circumstances was inevitable.
In 2020, there were over 1.05 million people on zero hours contracts compared with 896,000 in 2019. Since 2000, the number has increased by 820,000. So not only have real wages remained stagnant but employment security is considerably worse compared to ten years ago. Zero hours contracts allow employers to opt out of sick pay, holiday pay, maternity pay, national insurance contributions and auto-enrol pensions through exploitation of the many loopholes presented by combining statutory minimum pay levels with zero hours contracts.
The Rise in the ‘Working-Poor’ is a Stain on Society
It is no surprise to read earlier this month of a 12% increase in the number of in-work poor across Europe between 2010-2019 with the UK, Hungary, and Italy the worst effected economies. The European Trade Union Confederation report confirmed the perverse and unacceptable term ‘the working poor’ is now a growing stain on societies but the shame in the UK is amongst the worse with a 51% increase in working poor citizens in the UK, the second worst in the EU. The proportion of the UK workforce living in poverty in 2019 was 10.3% compared to 6.8% in 2010. So much for the Tory mantra about work being the only escape from poverty.
In addition to the shameful in-work-poverty statistics the Joseph Rowntree Trust has reported a massive increase in destitution in the pre-Covid period. More than a million UK households experienced destitution at some point in 2019, even though people were employed. These households contained 2.4 million people, including 550,000 children. The Report indicates destitution levels are highest in the North East, London, and the North West while the most vulnerable are single people and lone parents, mostly women. The chilling conclusion is that the number of children experiencing destitution in 2019 has risen by 52% compared to 2017.
Let that sink in for a moment. The 4th richest economy on the planet had over half a million children experiencing destitution in 2019. I dread to think about the numbers during the Covid19 imposed contraction of jobs and economic activity and the knock-on effects of the reported one million job losses in the most affected sectors like hospitality and retail.
Meanwhile the fat-cats at the other end of the social and economic spectrum continue to gorge themselves on rewards that are as obscene as they are unjustified. The High Pay Centre reported that at FTSE 100 companies, the chief executive officer’s (CEO) remuneration was equivalent to the average wage of 70 workers. However, pay differentials within retail are even more outrageous with a 355:1 ration at Tesco and a 348:1 ratio at JD Sports.
Amid all the gnashing of teeth and righteous indignation from the most comfortable in society about Brexit, it is essential to record that all this poverty and inequality is thriving within the European Union – so much of the rhetoric about protection of workers’ rights and social inclusion attached to EU membership really needs proper critical analysis.
EU Membership is Neither a Nirvana nor a Priority
In Scotland, the scourge of poverty engulfs one in five of the working age population. Over a million Scots try to live their lives while mired in poverty with one in four Scottish children and over 150,000 pensioners struggling daily with the multiple barriers to a decent life that poverty presents.
Sure, these are statistics which should shame the British Union and reflect why it is urgent to break free from the economic chains that union imposes on Scotland’s ambitions and desires to create greater opportunities for all, but they are also statistics which reflect poorly on the EU as an institution.
Scotland must pursue its independence with vigour in 2021 but important subsidiary questions like applying for membership of the EU must be left to a separate and informed referendum once our independent status is secured again. Norway has a similar population and economic assets to us yet fares better than Scotland in relation to poverty and levels of inequality while remaining outside EU membership. The question of Scottish independence must be separate from EU membership in the 2021 ballot.
Although 2020 was a difficult and in many ways a heart-breaking year it did acutely expose Tory incompetence and undoubtedly convince more Scots than ever of the case for independence. Many issues will confront an independent Scotland, but we simply cannot do worse on our own with decisions made and implemented in Scotland than the Tories are currently doing and have done over several decades.
After a truly remarkable seventeen opinion polls in succession indicating clear majorities for independence it is inconceivable that the SNP Government don’t insist on a 2021 poll in September or October of 2021 after securing yet another electoral victory at the May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. They will record their 5th straight national election victory in a row in May. If they can’t turn that level of support into independence there will be an emergency reappraisal of their alleged commitment to Scottish freedom. I hope they don’t let us down.
2021 Will Be the Year of Struggle and Scottish Freedom
2020 was a tough year indeed. 2021 promises to be even tougher from and economic and social perspective. The roll out of Covid-19 vaccines should allow us to get on top of the virus but it will take serious and determined organisation and struggle to avoid the Tory natural instinct to make workers and the poor pay for bailing out the country over the past 12 months. It must be the billionaires and millionaires who pay, not the millions. Trade unions will have to re-discover their collective will to fight and resist any further assaults on the living standards of their members. I predict major industrial battles ahead. Battles which ordinary workers must win. In Scotland we will also fight those battles but securing our independence again and the right to make and take our own decisions must be the priority.
2020 was the year of Covid19 and collectively fighting the virus. 2021 will be the year of anti-Tory struggles and collectively fighting their policies and their oppressive British Union. Britain as an entity entered a critical life-support phase in 2020. It will not survive in 2021. I say good riddance.