In the face of wage demands from public sector workers, the Scottish Government will make much of its limited tax and borrowing powers. But its own policies have forced this confrontation, argues David Jamieson.
The news that teachers, nurses and civil servants are to join a host of other workers across the public and private sectors in strike action for pay, is set to raise the temperature in Scottish politics.
Votes for strike are widespread, and burst Tory imposed anti-union thresholds designed to stop workers taking action. Every NHS service in Scotland will be affected by a nurses strike demanding a 5 percent pay increase above inflation, against a flat-rate real terms pay cut offered by government.
Civil servants voted for strike in numerous sectors from UK government departments to Scottish devolved sectors (though it appears not all have broken the 50 percent threshold and could be re-balloted). The Scottish Government’s pay policy for civil servants in 2022/23 is for just a 3 percent rise for the lowest paid workers, against 10 percent demanded by the union.
Teachers exploded the threshold with a massive 71 percent turnout, voting by 96 percent for strike action. They demand a 10 percent pay rise against a 5 percent offer – a more than 5 percent real terms cut.
The significance of this slew of successful ballots is not only in adding momentum to strikes already underway from rail to telecoms and post (and winning in some sectors including the Liverpool docks). It also applies new pressure to governments north and south of the border.
Predictably, Scottish Government officials are already pleading that they lack the tax and borrowing powers to meet workers’ demands. They are, they eternally protest, victims of circumstance. There’s a glaring problem with this narrative – the Scottish Government actively provoked this confrontation.
On May 31, barely six months ago, Finance Minister Kate Forbes announced massive cuts to the public sector. In addition to blanket real terms pay cuts, she proposed to shrink the number of workers employed by the state in Scotland by between 30-40,000. These projected job cuts would significantly outstrip those proposed by then UK chancellor Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The shock announcement was politically calculated to send a message to big business and powerful state and transnational institutions – the Scottish Government are serious about fiscal discipline and marketisation. Forbes herself could not have been clearer about this.
She told journalists that the public sector required reform after years of unsustainable growth, and that state sectors would need to: “…consider scope for innovation that embraces entrepreneurship, improves value for money, offers opportunities for commercialisation, better manages assets and brings benefit to the public purse.”
It is clear now that the massive scale of the attack and the assertive, ideological language of small-statism has also provoked a response from workers. And that’s why the wailing has started about a lack of powers.
It takes some gall for the Scottish Government to announce a massive assault on the public sector in May, in language intended to communicate hard-headed fealty to fiscal conservatism, and then cry and plead powerlessness in November when workers vote to stand up for themselves.
The cry-bully routine is unlikely to convince workers. A party in government for well over 15 years simply has no grounds to complain that it cannot establish a more progressive tax regime mid financial year, especially when it has proposed tax reform every one of those years. A government which has supported inflationary war spending over Ukraine by the British state, backed the economic war spiking energy prices and thrown £65 million from its own strained accounts into the maelstrom to boot, can hardly plead neutrality when inflation eats into workers’ pay.
The Scottish Government are co-authors, with London, of the attacks on the pay and living standards of millions of workers. Those resisting in all sectors, public and private, must win both for themselves and the sake of the majority wage-earning population. Government ministers who bleat and call for industrial peace today will return to the tough guy act in the coming months and years of recession.