Gregor Clunie

Gregor Clunie

Independence Means Taking On the Rentiers

Reading Time: 4 minutes

For national independence to achieve the aspirations of campaigners, it needs to confront entrenched class power. Gregor Clunie argues the SNP leadership’s approach will leave us prey to rentier capitalists.

According to a series of polls since March this year, a majority of Scots now support independence. For the left, the promise of independence generally includes a renewed commitment to universal welfare provision and well-funded public services, after a decade of Westminster austerity. It also typically involves some form of green economic reconstruction or re-industrialisation, promising well-paid and secure jobs as opposed to the casualised super-exploitation of the British low-wage economy. Finally, there is the hope that an independent Scotland would offer an escape from the venality of public life in a Britain whose descent from international pre-eminence has been particularly ungraceful.

An independence which would fulfil this promise requires, however, more than a relocation of the seat of power from London to Edinburgh. It entails tackling head-on the social forces which have presided over the degeneration of Britain’s economic and political life – forces which unfortunately have their heels firmly dug in north of the border. Independence is and will always be a class-political question.

Unfortunately, the confused policy platform developed by the SNP, which includes adopting Sterling as the currency of an independent Scotland without its own central bank, would surrender the commanding heights of the economy to the same class fraction that has presided over the mess of British society, locking-in developmental paths which would make transformative change impossible.

The rentiers are a dead weight

The unproductive rich are a dead weight on the Scottish economy and broader society – and none more so than the rentiers. The rentier class reproduces itself by inflating prices in the economy – from house prices and rents to utility bills and train fares, credit card and bank charges, pharmaceutical prices and an artificially inflated stock market. The profits in all these endeavours represent the confiscation of working people’s wages – whether the portion of the wage which we take home or that remainder which is socialised through taxation. Those who accumulate wealth through the extraction of increasingly extortionate rents from the wages of working people depress the living standards of those in work and sabotage the life chances of young people entering the labour market.

The operations of the rentiers confiscate the future inasmuch as they destroy the economy’s international cost position. The price of Scottish exports necessarily includes the cost of land, the rent of premises, the cost of borrowing, and the payment of utility bills and transport costs. The dramatic rise in these domestic costs makes it difficult to re-construct an industrial base which would provide the skilled, well-paid jobs that we so desperately require in a context of structural employment and the decline of real wages.

Spectacular economic mismanagement

What’s worse, the British economy has been spectacularly mismanaged from Westminster. Monetary policy has reflected the narrow interests of the rentier class which holds sway in the corridors of power, with a strong pound being maintained to attract inward financial flows and protect the wealth of asset holders. This high pound adds an additional tax to all Scottish products, which tend already to be produced in uncompetitive conditions on account of the domestic costs already discussed.

Britain’s pathetic rate of investment: IMF World Economic Outlook

Britain’s pathetic rate of investment: IMF World Economic Outlook

The final nail in the coffin for the Scottish economy is the sustained failure of those who extract wealth from our labours to productively reinvest that wealth domestically. British capital has for decades failed to modernise production through systematic investment in plant, machinery and improved technique, instead preferring to whisk monies away to luxury tax havens or deploy it speculatively in financial markets.

Competitiveness in international commodity markets requires complexity in production – the conscious construction of inter-connected supply chains deploying advanced techniques and state of the art technologies to produce high value-added products. The development of such industry requires strategic state-led investment as well as conscientious effort to keep input costs down. It is also, at a practical level, much easier to construct upon the foundation of modern national infrastructure.

All of this is anathema to the neoliberal British state, which has created rich troughs for the ravenous appetites of the rentier class – privatising transport and utility monopolies which provide monopoly rents, allowing house prices and rents to run free and liberating the banks and loan sharks to prey upon vulnerable renters and debtors. Surpluses which might have been used for modernisation have instead lined the pockets of multinationals presiding over an expensive, unreliable and antiquated rail network, slow and patchy communications infrastructure and an energy network limping over a cliff-edge due to failures of strategic planning and investment.

Change requires political bravery

In the context of an economic and political environment dominated by rentiers whose expropriated revenues undermine future prosperity, a meaningful Scottish independence cannot be achieved on a continuity platform. An independent Scotland which adopted the pound, retained privatised infrastructure, continued to fuel house price and rent inflation and which failed to restructure a vast, bloated, destructive and undifferentiated financial sector would be independent in name only. It would retain all of the key ingredients of a failing Britain, expressed in all of the social ills which have convinced many Scots of the need for change.

An independent Scotland needs a different kind of state managing a different kind of economy. We cannot pretend this is achievable by flirting with elite landed and oligarchic rentier interests, whose political support would in any event be brittle at best. An independent Scotland which is good for working people can only be won by working people – together we must call time on the unproductive bleeding of our collective wealth and the confiscation of our children’s future.

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