Reconstructing Scotland after the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis: learning the lessons of the pandemic

Inntroduction

As pressures for a return to previous ‘normal’ patterns and levels of working and economic activity increase, our political attention must turn to the issue of the post-pandemic period, and specifically, responding to the two principle economic outcomes of the pandemic, namely, a massively increased national debt and deep economic recession. Both could entail huge increases in existing levels of poverty and social inequalities as well as an opportunity for neo-liberals to further marketise and privatise the state (and the public sector and welfare state in particular). Under a return to a ‘business-as-usual’ approach, the current Conservative Westminster government has stated it will end the Job Retention Scheme in October this year and allow unemployment to rise to its so-called ‘natural’ level, meaning a level not seen since the early 1980s. As well as this, bringing down the national debt to pre-crisis levels is likely to become an unspoken political goal and one that is far more likely to be carried out by cuts in public expenditure rather than by raising significant amounts of taxes from the rich and corporations. Behind the headlines of this recession then becoming a depression and austerity afresh, we need to recall Naomi Klein’s thesis from her 2007 book called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In this, and presciently before the 2008-2009 global financial crash, she argued that neo-liberalism is capable of exploiting national crises to further establish controversial and questionable policies as citizens are too distracted (emotionally and physically) to engage and develop an adequate response, and resist effectively. 

So, this paper is a contribution to the process of seeking to shape a new ‘common sense’ that will inevitably come out of catastrophe that is the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis – and from a progressive, left position. The fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) has often been likened to fighting a war. If that is appropriate, it might also then be applicable to the post-pandemic period so that we can call for a progressive post-war settlement for the reconstruction of the economy and society (as did happen after 1945 under the Attlee-led Labour government which ushered in the modern welfare state and significant levels of public ownership of the likes of transport and utilities). We can do so because fundamental issues and questions have been raised by the pandemic. For example, if the state can intervene in the economy through the Job Retention Scheme whereby 80% of wages up to a value of £2,500 per month are guaranteed (subject to employers applying to furlough their workers), then why cannot the state in other times guarantee such a level of income to all and to prevent destitution through unemployment? Another example is that the state enforcement of rules and changes in consumer behaviour and preferences have seen a huge reduction in pollution levels as a result of far lower emissions from airplanes and cars. If action can be taken like this just now, why cannot it not be taken after the pandemic recedes in order to effectively respond to the climate emergency? A final one is: as rough sleepers are given accommodation, why can the state provide housing for homeless people in the pandemic but not before or, as is likely, afterwards? 

By contrast, the political right is likely to try to establish its own ‘common sense’ as a narrative of needing to do everything to re-start and bolster the operation of the markets here and abroad. But their message maybe rather mixed because under pressure from some amongst their ilk – like the Trumpian reactionary right – there will also likely be pressures towards protectionism and economic nationalism (possibly as part of a move towards a new authoritarianism). This disunity might provide some opportunity for the left to making its voice not only heard more loudly and also more effectively. This disunity might be further strengthened by reports that the Thatcherite thinktanks – the Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies, Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange – said they have endorsed public spending increases to confront the coronavirus outbreak and state-funded investment to boost the recovery (Guardian 16 May 2020). But notwithstanding this, the task will be tough given the outcome of the general election in December 2019. Yet government can be forced through popular pressure outside election times to change their policies and behaviour because even at the beginning of a new Parliament, there is still sensitivity to movements in polling. And, here in Scotland at least, there is the opportunity for the focus of the May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections to work around. The centre of political gravity in Holyrood, while far from perfect, is at least to the left of that found in Westminster. So, while there will be a clamour from many to get the economy back to some kind of normality, others will not only say economic considerations cannot be allowed to have priority over health and well-being but that there is an opportunity to re-imagine and re-set our priorities over the value of human life, respect for others and communal interests.

In this paper, a number of the members of the Project Board of the Jimmy Reid Foundation do not seek to simply re-state longstanding left political goals as some kind of shopping list of desired demands, timelessly appropriate as they might be. Rather, they seek to put forward policies that are especially relevant to the impact of the pandemic and the way existing state and society have reacted to the pandemic. Though they do not cover all and every particular aspect, they do have the foresight to essentially flag up the issues up for more detailed consideration by others later on. The initiative for this paper came from Dave Watson. Having reviewed some of the ideas being discussed around the long-term implications of the pandemic in a blog post of his in mid-April, Dave Watson was concerned that the left should not be caught on the hop – as in 2009 – by, thus, allowing the right-wing to set the narrative on the long-term lessons to be learned from the pandemic. We thank him for thinking through these issues at a time when so many were concerned with the more immediate issues of PPE, tracing and tracking and so on. 

The rest of this introduction briefly covers a few of the aspects not dealt with by the contributors to this paper. The first amongst them is that of state control of medical equipment and medical supplies. The pandemic has revealed not just how badly the states of all the devolved nations were prepared for the coronavirus crisis but, when they did try to respond, the problems they had doing so because there was no state ownership or control of the necessary supplies. The need for PPE, tracking and testing and so on will continue until a vaccine is developed and inoculation becomes universal because ‘herd immunity’ cannot be relied upon. It is unacceptable that whichever pharmaceutical company first develops a vaccine will rake in untold revenue and, thus, profits. In this situation, there should be state ownership of resources, possibly with inter-state cooperation, to develop and distribute a vaccine – most obviously through university laboratories or bringing into public ownership of existing privately-owned facilities – or price controls on the sale of the vaccine to limit profits. 

The next most obvious issue is taxation and public spending. In the words of former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, it has been long established that austerity from 2010 onwards was ‘a political choice and not an economic necessity’. The national debt is expected to be some £300bn by the end of 2020, representing 110% of GDP. Though this level of debt is much higher in relative terms than before – for example, it was 57% of GDP in 2009 after the banking bailout, this relative is not completely unprecedented. Thus, in 2018, it was 81% of GDP and in 1945, after the end of the Second World War, it was 200%. So, in early 2020, the ‘magic money tree’ was shaken so vigorously as to let so many of its leaves of pound notes fall, proving the money is there when the political will is also there to spend it. But spending is, of course, only half the story as all conventional economic thinking states this debt has to be repaid. If this is so and despite the historically low levels of interest to pay paid, then higher rates of tax must be imposed upon those able to pay them along with stringent measures to reduce tax avoidance and tax evasion.[1] The first means a wealth tax and the second means the resources and instruction to the HMRC and Revenue Scotland. It is improbable that we will have any kind of V-shaped recession where levels of economic activity quickly bounce back to what they were before the pandemic (which themselves were not great).

The third is health and safety at work. Fortunately, the next paper to be published by the Jimmy Reid Foundation is by Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling called ‘Occupational health and safety in Scotland in and after the COVID-19 pandemic’. It will address the challenges to worker health and safety during the pandemic, how those challenges relate to past failures and missed opportunities in Britain and Scotland on worker health and safety prior to 2020, and the future for worker health and safety in a devolved or independent Scotland. It will develop on from his recent article in the Scottish Left Review (May/June 2020) on these issues. All that needs to be said before this paper is published is that workers should be aware of their rights to leave unsafe working conditions under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 and that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) not only needs more resources to inspect unsafe workplaces but also the willingness to do so

The contributions begin with the issue of health and social care given that it provides a window by which to look out onto the other salient issues.

Professor Gregor Gall, director, JRF

Health and Social Care

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of our health and care systems and those who deliver them. After a decade of austerity, our health and care services were stretched before the pandemic; we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Whatever the lessons of Operation Cygnet and Silver Swan 2016 pandemic exercises were, governments in Scotland and Britain have demonstrated limited preparedness. Not least with testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, and the provision of intensive care beds. Socialist Health Association (SHA) President, Allyson Pollock, highlighted the failure to follow the WHO scientific advice in the British Medical Journal. Case finding, contact tracing and testing, and strict quarantine are the classic tools in public health to control infectious diseases. In Singapore, Vietnam, and South Korea meticulous contact tracing combined with clinical observation plus testing were vital in containing the disease. In Scotland, as in the rest of Britain, contact tracing was abandoned early in the pandemic, and testing has been described as ‘wholly inadequate’. Britain has been one of the hardest hit countries by the pandemic. The response has been proved to be one of the least effective as governments have struggled to get on top of the crisis. As scientists at the University of Edinburgh have shown, a lockdown two weeks earlier might have reduced the death rate in Scotland by 80%. 

Many more people than average have died from cancer, heart disease and dementia in Scotland since the pandemic broke out. There will be extensive delayed diagnosis and increased demand for services that have been deprioritised during the crisis. For example, some 2,000 urgent cancer referrals are not happening every week in Scotland. There is also a significant concern about antibiotic resistance. Purging the population of this virus will not be easy.

It has been great to see the community support for our NHS hospital, community and social care workforce who have responded magnificently to the crisis. Welcome though the claps are, workers have all too often been left exposed to unacceptable safety risks. Staff welfare should be prioritised given the stress many have worked under, and our gratitude for all their efforts recognised in pay and conditions. This includes support for informal carers who have also faced additional pressure during this crisis. With a projected global shortage of 15m health and care workers by 2030, workforce planning is particularly urgent, with added pressures from Brexit and the new Westminster Immigration Bill.

The pandemic has exposed the frailty of our fragmented and under-resourced social care ‘system’ in Scotland. Data (at week 18) shows that 42.8% of deaths from Covid-19 were in care homes, who have struggled with inadequate staffing and very limited PPE. The agreement reached with the Scottish Government to finally pay the Scottish Living Wage for all social care workers delivering public contracts, now, without 32 sets of negotiations, demonstrates that a Scottish Care Service is deliverable – setting a consistent framework for social care while retaining local delivery. This must include addressing the fragmentation of delivery and the balance of ownership models. We need integration and parity of esteem. [2]

We will also need to reflect on how NHS Scotland needs to reform after the pandemic. We will certainly need a strengthened public health function. Now may also be the time to reflect how contracted health services, including, GPs, community pharmacy, dentistry and opticians, were impacted during the pandemic and how greater integration might help.

It has been claimed that COVID-19 is a ‘great leveller’. The emerging data shows it is nothing of the sort. As ever, it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer the most, with particular concerns for BAME groups and the elderly. The lockdown and closure of schools is expected to exacerbate existing educational inequalities. The pandemic is already increasing health inequalities and any return to austerity economics will exacerbate inequality. The ‘new normal’ must effectively tackle health inequalities with radical action on income support, household debt, social security, housing, public services and the environment. With interest rates at record low levels, there is no urgent requirement to pay back debt, and we should fund increased spending by tackling tax avoidance and taxing wealth. We need to argue for a better society with less inequality and built by eliminating child poverty. That means improving working conditions to ensure that everyone has the minimum income to lead a healthy life and creating a sustainable environment in which to live and work – and so creating the conditions for people to pursue healthy living.

Dave Watson, Secretary of the Socialist Health Association Scotland

www.shascotland.org

Universal Basic Income 

In his famous Rectorial Address at the University of Glasgow on 28 April 1972, Jimmy Reid spoke of alienation when people ‘feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control’.COVID-19 mirrors these blind forces exacerbated by an incompetent Westminster Government showing a lack of leadership and slow reactions to the developing crisis. Before and once the lockdown was introduced, recognition of the need to address the economic implications have been piecemeal, leaving many behind and especially those in the precarious labour market. 

Jimmy Reid also noted alienation ‘partially dehumanises some people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centred and grasping’But, in the working-class community in which I live and across the country people have overwhelmingly stayed home, protecting each other and those they do not and cannot know: they have acted as members of a society, each living for the common good. Very few have broken the rules, neighbourly activity and support have been palpable – outwith the Westminster Government and its neo-liberal lackeys, the people have accepted that ‘no man is an island’ (John Donne, 1624) and recognise ‘the rights of man’ (Thomas Paine, 1796, and an early proponent of basic income for all).

By giving up elements of personal freedoms during the lockdown, Scottish citizens are agreeing with the World Bank study from 2005 that stated that ‘most of a nation’s wealth derives from intangible capital; that is, from human capital and the quality of institutions, especially the rule of law. The wealthier the nation, the more this is so’.[3] It is estimated that at least 90% of our common wealth derives from this intangible social capital – the trust, shared values and behaviours that allow a society to function effectively in the view of Herbert Simon, a Nobel economics prize winner. Basic Income can be considered to be the social dividend of this capital wealth due to us all. By acting selflessly for the good of others, we are benefiting all and an unconditional and non-withdrawable basic income for all is consistent with that inclusive society.

Over the lockdown period, the extraordinary delays in paying Universal Credit to those newly unemployed, the failure to support the self-employed (about 1 in 6 of the workforce) until mid-May and the many still falling through the gaps of a social security system that is not fit for purpose anyway and particularly now all strengthen the arguments for radical alternatives to social protection for everyone in our society. The UN Development Programme has called for universal basic income to be a central part of national fiscal stimulus packages to address the economic crisis and so to meet the need to support the millions unemployed and the ‘huge proportion of people [who] work in the informal sector’, the precariat and carers. 

A basic income for all would be an efficient way to support everyone, to stabilise the macro-economy fairly by sustaining effective demand in the economy and so directly maintaining spending, jobs and incomes in local shops, services and other enterprises. This would be more efficient and effective than through the Westminster Government’s schemes based on lending to businesses through banks, salami-slicing the workforce with various and complex measures of furloughing and delayed grants, and leaving many in poverty with pressure to take risks in employment. A basic income should be part of a Just Transition to an economy and society fit for all, empowering Scottish workers, carers, families and citizens. 

Professor Mike Danson, Chair of the Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland http://cbin.scot  

Climate and Just Transition

Prior to the end of 2020, a number of radical economists, union activists and ecologists were arguing for the state to invest large sums of public money into the economy for a limited period in order to transition to the kind of transformed economy without fossil fuels.[4] This ‘cold turkey’ approach to society’s addiction to hydrocarbons included guaranteeing the income of certain categories of workers for a limited period of time whilst they are paid not to work – at least in their existing jobs – and to deploy workers quickly into socially essential areas of work. Despite the widespread recognition of the climate emergency, such proposals seemed almost romantically utopian, especially following the election of Boris Johnson’s Tory government. 

Since then, we have known about the other emergency, and have seen that same Westminster Government spend £8bn on furloughing a quarter of all workers. Of course, it has done so in a knee-jerk, chaotic and inefficient way, and shows every sign of ending the scheme equally chaotically and returning to the same failed economy, with another round of austerity. We have known about the climate emergency for decades and could plan for such a transition. In the 1970s, left wing writers were calling for a citizen’s income as part of a radical transformation of the economy in response to the environmental crisis,[5] whilst the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), initiated in 1992, has spent the intervening period looking for mechanisms compatible with the market and the interests of the big corporations – what climate campaigners call ‘false solutions’.

Bear in mind that within the FCCC, the 2015 Paris Agreement recognised that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, it is necessary to limit the increase in average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, yet acknowledged that rates of mitigation would lead to a 3 degrees Celsius rise. Since then, and aided by the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion, every government in Britain and most public bodies have acknowledged the climate emergency. The Scottish Government is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045: Friends of the Earth Scotland demands that this should be by 2040, and Extinction Rebellion by 2025. The Westminster government host of COP26 in Glasgow, now rescheduled to sometime in 2021, is determined to offer false solutions, and the Scottish Government has an opportunity after lockdown to lead the way in genuine solutions following the establishment of its  Just Transition Commission after pressure from the STUC and Friends of the Earth Scotland,.

The pandemic lockdown has seen the streets reclaimed by families on bicycles, an increase in urban air quality, a drop in consumption and a crash in the price of oil. Jobs dependent on the oil industry will be under threat and the corporations will be looking to governments for further cash in excess of the £2.4bn tax allowances documented over a five-year period for keeping the oil flowing. The costs to the public purse on tax relief for decommissioning oil installations (£30bn) could be redirected to maintaining the income of oil workers whilst the economy is restructured to a low waste, low consumption, renewably sourced, socially beneficial (and publicly owned) energy regime.[6] Instead of a quarter of all workers being hurriedly furloughed for a few months, the 150,000 or so workers directly employed in oil and gas in Scotland could be furloughed in a planned, staged way as a state-led construction of a renewable infrastructure is put in place, creating 200,000 jobs in the process.[7]

The just transition is not just about jobs in oil and gas sector however. A quarter of greenhouse gas emissions globally comes from agriculture and other land-based activities[8]. Removing subsidies to intensive agro-industry, introducing a pesticide tax and breaking up land ownership will enable more people to work in small scale food production, cut emissions and toxicity and increase food sovereignty as part of the system change to sustainability.

Dr Eurig Scandrett is University and College Union (UCU) Scotland’s representative on the Just Transition Partnership

Public Transport

The COVID-19 crisis has proven, if there were still any doubt, that the privatisation of our public transport networks has been a complete failure. For years, the private companies which operate our railways and bus services have been able to pay out massive dividends to private shareholders whilst being in receipt of large public subsidies. Between 2010-19, over £2bn was paid in dividends by the Britain’s private Train Operating Companies (TOCs), and the Rolling Stock Companies (ROSCOs) paid out £2.4bn in the same period. Prior to the pandemic, the Scottish Government had allocated £500m in public subsidy for Abellio Scotrail for this year alone, an increase of around £100m from the year previous. 

As passenger revenue all but dried up due to COVID-19, the governments across Britain bailed out the private transport operators with more public money, in order that they could maintain a level service for essential travellers – and, seemingly, with no restrictions on the companies’ ability to pay dividends in the future. When questioned on whether the Westminster Government would prevent companies seeking emergency COVID-19 state aid from paying dividends this year, Leader of the House, Jacob Rees Mogg, said it would ‘not be right’ to intervene in this way. 

Under privatisation, transport networks are fragmented, and have suffered from a lack of strategic investment, as the multiple operators prioritise maximising revenue over all else. Running railways and bus networks on a commercial basis treats these services as a private commodity, not a public service or resource. For instance, it is commonplace for private bus operators to cut non-profitable routes, isolating communities which rely on these services to access jobs, healthcare and education.

It would be disastrous, environmentally and societally, if the COVID-19 crisis was to cause permanent shifts away from public transport to private vehicle usage – our cities would become even more gridlocked, worsening air quality, increasing carbon emissions sand exacerbating health inequalities. The impacts of COVID-19 have been felt unequally, with studies showing that people living in polluted areas are more likely to die from COVID-19. In Scotland, people living in the most deprived areas are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than those living in the wealthiest parts. 

Instead of the mess of privatisation, we need sustainable, affordable, accessible and integrated transport networks in public ownership. This would enable shifts from private vehicle ownership and allow the transport sector to realise the carbon emissions reductions required to tackle climate change. We need mass public investment in public transport infrastructure to make our networks more spacious, affordable and frequent. Public ownership of our transport networks would put an end to the leakage of millions in shareholder dividends every year, address the additional costs caused by fragmentation and allow surplus revenue to be reinvested in the system, expanding services and the capacity of the networks. 

Throughout the pandemic, governments and operators have been, rightly, commending frontline transport workers for their role in enabling transport network to continue running for other essential workers, and tragically, like in other frontline services, many transport workers have lost their lives to COVID-19. Yet despite these public exaltations, for years, many frontline transport workers have been undervalued, on low pay, and in insecure employment. This cannot be allowed to continue – we need transport systems, under public ownership, that value workers, pay them a fair wage and afford all the same level of security and conditions. It is outrageous that some in the Westminster Treasury are already floating idea of pay freezes and austerity to address COVID-19 spending. This would be a kick in the teeth for frontline workers who have continued to work throughout the pandemic. The RMT is clear that we will not allow our members to pay the cost of this crisis. 

As we transition out of the pandemic, it is vital that we build a broad alliance of unions, environmentalists, passengers and beyond to make clear that there can be no more of the status quo when it comes to public transport, and that continued investment and public ownership is needed, to create a sustainable public transport system which values passengers and workers, not private profit. 

Gordon Martin is the Regional Organiser for the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union in Scotland

Damaging Freedom of Information

The catastrophic loss of life due to COVID-19 is a personal tragedy for the families and friends of the victims and a national scandal too since medics and academics have been warning us for years that the world was overdue for a pandemic. So how Britain began our battle with so little PPE in care homes and entirely insufficient supplies in the NHS is just one matter for scrutiny. Evidenced based conclusions require access to all the information, the policies, the data, the minutes of meetings, the agendas, who was round the table, who said what, what was the advice and when was it given? In other words, basic investigative methods so we can understand the past, reconcile with the present and recover better.

However, enforceable access to information rights was immediately weakened by the Scottish Parliament’s emergency legislation – unlike at the Westminster level where the matter was dealt with under ‘Guidance’. Published on 31 March and passed on 1 April despite fierce opposition by some MSPs, it retrospectively allowed Scotland’s 10,000 public bodies to triple the answering time for information requests from 20 to 60 working days. Furthermore, internal reviews also could take up to 60 working days instead of the normal 20 and that’s significant as you need to complete both processes before you can complain to the Scottish Information Commissioner. By the time, the Scottish Information Commissioner has adjudicated on your complaint the information may be worthless. 

To think it is acceptable to relax one of the fundamental ways to enforce accountability and enable scrutiny of government during a health emergency is worrying. It is not an ‘either or’ situation: we should be able to fight the virus and maintain robust access to information rights. Of course, there will be exceptions where staff members need to physically access locked up buildings to obtain papers, but the law applied unilaterally. 

The process of drafting the legislation deserves scrutiny as we know now civil servants discussed limiting Freedom of Information rights on 4 March but failed to raise it with the Scottish Public Information Forum or its stakeholders.[9] And, all this took place when the Scottish Government was still under formal intervention by the Commissioner for poor practice on compliance with the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoISA).

Fortunately, those MSPs who supported the Scottish Government have reflected. The result is the MSPs collectively voted to roll back the legislative changes on Freedom of Information on 20 May. Additionally, MSPs now require the Scottish Government to provide regular reports to Parliament on its Freedom of Information performance. Inevitably some damage will have already been done to the efficient gathering and filing of important information but at least there is now a commitment to return to normal service. 

However, the business of Freedom of Information is set to radically change following publication of the Scottish Parliament’s post-legislative scrutiny report on FoISA. The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS) welcomes the range of recommendations on practice, on procedure and legal matters including: increasing the range of publicly funded bodies covered, the need to escalate pro-active publication, the necessity of ensuring correspondence by social media is properly captured for future disclosure and the essential role of record keeping and record management in delivering transparency and accountability.

Fortunately, those MSPs who supported the Scottish Government have reflected and are now seeking to revisit the legislation. Inevitably some damage will have already been done to the efficient gathering and filing of important information. We can look forward to the publication of the Scottish Parliament’s post legislative scrutiny report on FoISA and overwhelmingly the evidence suggested the FoISA needs to be reformed to be effective currently and in the future. It is also important for the Scottish Government to act on its consultation to extend FoISA to publicly funded services such as care homes run by the charitable and private sectors. Bleak times but hopefully stronger Freedom of Information rights in the future.

Carole Ewart is Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information 

in Scotland www.cfois.scotinfo@cfois.scot @CFoIScot

Higher Education Governance

Higher education (HE) has been in crisis for some time. In Scotland. The retention of state-funded undergraduate fees, small reforms to governance and opt-outs for the Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) have not protected the sector from the neo-liberal trend of commercialisation and managerialism. Audit Scotland, as recently as September 2019,  drew attention to the reduction in overall public funding (by 7% in three years) and chronic underfunding of education and research (92% and 80% respectively) in Scottish universities.[10] This had already led universities increasingly to depend upon private sources of revenue such as non-EU student fees (35%) and commercial activities (15%), resulting in massive inequalities in the sector, and two-thirds of Scottish universities (including all of the post-1992 institutions) reporting a deficit. The University and College Union (UCU) has reported the cost borne by staff through unsustainable workloads, falls in the real value if pay and increased casualisation of employment.[11] There was already speculation about how bad the effect of Brexit would be. That was before COVID-19. Amongst the biggest impacts of the pandemic is a massive drop in overseas students and commercial opportunities, the two sources on which Scottish universities have become increasingly dependent.

The Westminster government has announced a package to ‘stabilise’ university finances, with most measures aimed at English institutions. Universities Scotland, representing the Scottish Principals, described it as inadequate, and has estimated that the sector looks likely to lose £500m next year.[12] Meanwhile, individual institutions are responding by shifting to online teaching and administration, and restructuring campuses to operate at a fraction of capacity. Workload is increasing further, even in institutions who are responding well, while others are starting to shed staff. The cracks which were already forming in the flawed HE business model, now threaten to break the sector apart. A new political economy is necessary. 

Certainly, there is a need to increase HE funding to establish the sector as a public good, and perhaps now is the time for Scotland to insist on control of corporation tax so that education can be funded from increases in this source (as proposed by UCU). But in order to put public funding to public benefit, the sector also needs a renegotiation of the relationship between university governance and government control. Currently, ‘university autonomy’ is interpreted as freedom to run a business so long as it delivers government policy through outcome agreements with the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). Principals act as CEOs with runaway remuneration, and governing bodies as company directors: academic freedom and social relevance is undermined by commercial pressures. 

Elected chairs and union appointees are not enough to democratise universities. What is needed is for policy to be determined through a partnership between staff, students and communities. This can occur at an institutional level, but also regionally, in order to break down competition between institutions. Such a ‘council of scholars and communities’ could serve to democratise the interests and practices of universities.[13] At the same time, universities must be places of strongly protected academic freedom, not just as a right for academics to test ideas, but also as a space where social alternatives are collectively tested by academics, other workers and communities, privileging those with a stake in social change. 

The structural inequality in the sector, especially between the ‘new’ and ‘old’, needs to be addressed. Funding priorities should, thus, aim to redistribute amongst institutions in order to ensure equity, stability and access across the sector. Again, regional co-governance will help, but also national cooperation is needed. Instead of government policy alone shaping funding allocation, the SFC could be overseen by a Scottish council of scholars and communities to oversee funding allocation. 

There is an opportunity here to consider nationalising the university estate, removing the commercialisation of university property and ensuring that it is used for public benefit. This could best be done by placing the assets of universities into trust ownership, which would guarantee public benefit. And this is an opportune time to facilitate the establishment of cooperative universities, in which the university is not only governed, but owned by those who work and study in it, and others who have a stake in its success. 

Dr Eurig Scandrett is a branch activist in University and College Union (UCU) at Queen Margaret University

Valuing Civil Servants 

Every Thursday at 8pm, the locked down nation opens its windows and doors to clap for key workers. Nurses, care workers, shop and distribution workers, those in the emergency services, postal, refuse collectors are all applauded by families. Hand printed messages and rainbows in windows are very moving. Yet who claps for thousands of key workers in the DWP administering ten times the number of claims for Universal Credit than they were in March? From day one of lockdown, these staff have been going into their workplaces as usual, risking public transport and social distancing rules to make sure that the payments are processed to a groundswell of newly impoverished claimants now dependent on the welfare state to make ends meet. DWP staff are the lowest paid in the civil service. 40% of those administering Universal Credit are themselves dependent on it as their salary is so low.

Whilst the government applauds itself in securing 80% of civil servants working from home, the DWP is the exception. The department has simply not invested in the technology over the years. PCS has pressed the employer, who have now placed on order 25,000 laptops. But those 25,000 workers have been at risk every day of the lockdown until now. Meanwhile, with the agreement of PCS 17% of passport workers were in their offices processing emergency and compassionate passports. However, some weeks ago their employer declared that 80% of the public are likely to contract the virus, and that the workers were as safe in the office as they might be at the supermarket. PCS insisted on risk assessments on buildings, proper PPE, social distancing measures, etc before the staff returned. How essential can routine passport processing be right now?

With 80% of civil servants currently reported to be home-working, PCS union does not believe that any general return to the workplace is currently safe and we believe that the PM’s announcement will inevitably cause more deaths. 

Like is the case with so many other workers, the values that guide our society must change so that the work that civil and public servants carry out is properly and fully valued. This means not just universal and permanent respect but also the wages and working conditions that accord with that. This is not to privilege civil and public servants but to argue that a vast array of workers and the work they carry out must be now seen in a different light – one that values the public good they do and does not reduce everything to the so-called ‘pounds and pence’ of the ‘added value’ that they bring. So many of workers in society are, if we stop to think about it, key workers. And though that means the public throughout society must more wholeheartedly move in this direction, those that must move furthest in this direction are employers and governments. While the Scottish Government launched the Fair Work Framework in 2016 and has taken some steps to strengthen it through Fair Work First, there is much more than can be done, especially by giving it teeth based in law (in terms of obligation and enforcement). This is essential if its stated goals of achieving effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect by 2025 are to be realised. 

 Lynn Henderson is a national officer for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union

About the Jimmy Reid Foundation

Established in 2011 by the Scottish Left Review, the Jimmy Reid Foundation (JRF) is an independent ‘think tank’ and advocacy group focussed on producing practical, policy proposals for transforming Scotland based upon analysis and investigation of the current Scottish and global political, cultural and social situation. Visit our website http://reidfoundation.org/ to see our policy papers and news and follow us twitter @ReidFoundation.


[1] In this respect, it was encouraging to see that the Scottish Greens amendment to the COVID-19 emergency legislation in Holyrood, the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Bill, in May 2020 preventing companies domiciled in tax havens from receiving state aid was agreed. This is similar to decisions in Wales, France, Poland and Denmark.

[2] In line with this are the growing calls for all care homes to be either brought into public ownership or be set up as non-profit organisations which are far more heavily regulated (including sector wide collective bargaining).

[3] Cited in Lei Delsen (ed.) Empirical Research on an Unconditional Basic Income in Europe, Springer, 2019, p89.

[4] See, for example, the New Economics Foundation (2019) Trust in Transition: Climate Breakdown and High Carbon Workers

[5] For example, Andre Gorz first published Écologie et politique in 1975 (subsequently published in English as Ecology as Politics in 1980).

[6] Figures from Sea Change: Climate Emergency, Jobs and Managing the Phase-Out of UK Oil and Gas Extraction, co-published by Platform, Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth Scotland.

[7] See Mika Minio-Paluello (2015) Jobs in Scotland’s New Economy, Platform, London.

[8] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change AP% Synthesis Report

[9] The Scottish Government website at http://www.gov.scot/About/Information/FOI/6principles

[10] Audit Scotland Report: Finances of Scottish universities September 2019

[11] UCU Workload survey 2016

[12] Universities Scotland ‘Scotland’s universities will need bespoke support from UK and Scottish Governments to get through COVID-19 crisis’, 4May 2020, universities-scotland.ac.uk

[13] See David Ridley, ‘Markets, Monopolies and Municipal Ownership: The Political Economy of Higher Education in Thirteen Theses and Thirteen Short Pieces’ https://hemarketisation.wordpress.com/pamphlet/