Submission to the Smith Commission

 

Introduction

The aim of this submission is to bring a different perspective to the Commission’s work. I hope to demonstrate how social constructionist perspectives may help to understand the myriad influences and narratives that underpin social inequality in Scotland at present and put forward my reasoning for the devolving of all powers that do not affect the rUK directly in order to address these issues.

I aim to introduce the primary concepts at the core of social constructionism and the rationale behind social constructionism’s emergence out of postmodernist ideology. These ideas will then be expanded upon to explore the particular challenges and opportunities this provides for the Commission and future policy makers within an episteme of fiscal consolidation and growing inequality.

I also hope that some observations from the emerging fields of behavioural economics and modern social psychology will lend itself to a greater understanding of how the Commissions recommendations can influence the emergence of a new social contract in Scotland that more accurately reflects the wishes of her people.

 

 

The Challenge

Those of us who worked so hard to attain independence must accept September’s result with good grace and turn our attention to working just as tirelessly on the land of the post referendum landscape in order to produce the highest yield for the people of Scotland.

It is my contention that this can only be served with a radical reimagining of the current political system that exists within the United Kingdom. While it is clear that the numbers wishing to express themselves in a fully independent nation were too few to realize that dream, it is also fair to say that they represent a significant percentage of the population.

An estimate as to how many people on the No side were swayed by The Vow made on the 15th of September is harder to postulate but several surveys conducted in the aftermath of the result and the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey conducted before the referendum would suggest that support for ‘devo max’ might be anywhere between 66% and 70% while support for full tax raising powers was higher still.

This correlates with the assertion many of us hold on the Yes side, that The Vow played a significant part in the decision making process of many voters on the morning of the 18th.

The Vow then, and the delivery of it represents a huge challenge for the Commission and, for the establishment south of the border. Subsequently pairing The Vow with EVEL legislation in an attempt to garner support from the Conservative back benches has rendered already difficult negotiations even more so and any failure to deliver on the solemn promise made by the three leaders of the main Westminster parties threatens to derail the union entirely.

While this would not bring a tear to my own eye, it would not reflect the wishes of the majority of people in Scotland and therefore has to be undesirable in the current context.

Finally, as important for the Commission must be the notion that such an upsurge in activism and engagement as witnessed recently ought to be viewed as a marked increase in the social capital of our nation. This must be seized upon.

If the traditional, normative economic views of the individual as a self-serving, rational maximisers of personal hedonic utility are correct, we would expect that the level of voter engagement during the last election would be far less than what was witnessed.

Campaigning, is a time consuming and rarely rewarding business when considered against the impact that the individuals vote has on the outcome of the result. Yet over 97% of those eligible to vote, registered to do so and voter turn out was unprecedented on the day of the plebiscite.

So what prompted such astounding levels of engagement?

The myth of apathy was dispelled with the level of participation witnessed throughout the last six months of the campaign and in the unheralded numbers of people voting for the first time. This was the result of a great many people sensing that for the first time, their voices would be heard and that they could not only participate in the political process, but also shape it.

The challenge for those on both sides of the debate and for the Commission is to ensure that such a level of engagement is clung to and is not allowed to dissipate.

This will be done by transference of power away from a self-serving political elite based hundreds of miles away to at first national and subsequently local level. Further devolution must include then the right to devolve power from the Scottish Government to municipal authorities throughout Scotland.

Scotland suffers greatly from a geography whereby local councils cover vast swathes of land, increasing the sense of isolation between communities and policy makers.

If we are to realize the telos of a wholly participative form of democracy that engages every member of this nation and actively seeks to include them in our discussions, listen to their concerns, and answer directly to them for our inadequacies, we must ensure that the ‘unprecedented new powers’ promised, are precisely that.

 

 

Some Guiding Principles

Any discussion surrounding the devolvement of additional powers and responsibilities ought to follow several overarching principles.

I contend that it might be beneficial to adopt those that are already enshrined in the general principles of EU law, namely, that of transparency, equal treatment and the principle of proportionality, which requires a two-step enquiry:

(1) whether the measure at issue is appropriate for attaining the objective pursued and

(2) whether the measure at issue goes beyond what is necessary to achieve the objective.

The suggestions themselves put forward in this paper aim to deliver the maximum workable agreement and themselves are judged under three more guiding principles. Principles that ought to guide not so much the work of the commission, but the arguments for the devolved matters individually.

All subsequently devolved matters ought to,

– increase accountability,

– promote greater equality.

– and facilitate change

A Portuguese proverb asserts that what is bought is cheaper than a gift. The rationale behind this statement is that monetary tokens are easily bought but do not consider the lasting effect on the beneficiary.

Scotland’s Westminster benefactors must be careful of similarly token gestures that lack the inherent wealth of an offering. That of its transformative power. The gift’s inherent quality to promote change.

The Westminster parties would much prefer that the devolved ‘gifts’ – let us be in no doubt that that is how they view them – were not necessary at all.

We must view them as gifts in Scotland also. The opportunity to resolve matters for ourselves has gone, and so we find ourselves once more relying on devolved ‘handouts’ from our absentee landlords. We must hope they are munificent and they grant us powers which contain the principle of transformation and are not simply, an attempt to convince us that we will be a few bob better off in our pockets.

The transformative power then of any future devolved power must be most present in our minds when we consider its merits. What will the devolvement of this power be able to achieve? Will it be able to achieve that on its own? Or will further powers be necessary to ensure that the devolvement of one power is not circumscribed by the retention of other matters.

Finally, discussions must also take into account the sovereign will of the Scottish people and her intrinsic political sensibilities. It is hardly needed to state here, that the political spectrum within the United Kingdom is markedly different north of the border as it is south of it.

Failure to appreciate this difference will lead to a range of devolved powers that go little way to placating the dissenting masses and by that token ensure the issue of the neverendum remains on the table.

The only way to convince the people of Scotland that her decision to reject full autonomy was the correct one is to grant her the powers that will enable her to pursue the kind of society she wishes to be.

 

 

Fair is Fair

The Commission must ensure that devolvement is fair and just.

Modern psychological research conducted in Ultimatum Games, and Dictator Games demonstrate that individuals are so wedded to the idea of fairness, that they will accept inefficient losses to themselves before accepting and unfair outcome.

The result of the suggestion then that all politics is deeply unfair and does not represent the people is a turning away once more from politics or, for those who remain engaged, a turning toward more extremist views and populists who promise great change and disillusionment.

This must be warded against at all costs as the outcome of such a landscape is the break up of the United Kingdom.

 

 

Social Constructionism: A Critical Pedagogy

Social Constructionism concerns itself principally with explicating the processes by which people describe and explain the world in which they inhabit. (Gergen, 1985). It is essentially a relativist stance (Hammersley, 1992), with origins in the writings of Berger and Luckmann (1991) that challenges positivist methodology and empiricism.

As an approach, it is influenced heavily by philosophical debate, sociology and linguistics. (Burr, 1995). Indeed, the influence of linguistics is of paramount importance in understanding social constructionism. Linguistic narrative not only shapes our understanding of the world around us, but also our attitudes and interest in participation with the world we around us.

The core tenets associated with social constructionism are threefold:

  • Social constructionism insists that a critical stance is taken toward received wisdom, opinion and established myths in the world around us. Social constructionists are required to be critical of the idea that our observations of the world around us reveal to us its true nature (Burr 1995 p2).
  • The manner in which we understand the world is a product of cultural relativism and as Burr has stated, it is imperative that the social constructionist does not allow that we assume our thinking is more truthful than other cultural truths (Burr, 1995 p3).
  • That knowledge is constructed between people and sustained through social processes and daily interactions that reinforce that shared vision of knowledge (Burr, 1995 p4) and that shared constructions contribute to the socialisation of both individuals and social groups within society to the extent that those ideas through their sharing become reality for those participants in society (Payne, 2005)

These assertions help us to understand something of the nature of the world in that it follows that socially constructed knowledge between individuals and groups of individuals can not only be readily understood to differ between cultures but also to develop over time and change within any particular culture.

To this end social constructionism lends itself to a definition of critical pedagogy, characterized as it is by a mistrust of perceived wisdom and first impressions.

Critical pedagogy was first introduced as a theory of education by Paolo Freire who described the purpose of education thus, ‘to liberate people, by allowing them to discuss problems that are relevant to them and helping them realise that they are sources of creative, critical thinking and capable of action in the face of conflict’ (Freire, 1970).

The Commissions work affords us the opportunity to oversee a social liberation – albeit within the fabric of the United Kingdom – that is relevant to the people and includes the people in its creation.

 

 

Implications of Post Modernist thought on the Commission’s work

It might be advantageous to give a brief overview of postmodernist thought in order to provide background to the issues it raises for the Commission.

Post modernist thought was born out of modernist, enlightenment theory and stood in direct opposition to the then established Cartesian view of the world. Influenced greatly by Nietzsche and Beckett, who in turn were both responsible for the iconoclastic writings of Foucault, postmodernism threw down the gauntlet to empiricism, claiming that Cartesian dualism and rational positivism had run it’s natural course.

The chief instigator of this inquisition was Foucault, but his contribution was built upon solid foundations previously laid by Nietzsche, whom Foucault described as ‘a revelation’ (Miller, 1993). Indeed, Nietzschean perspective is apparent throughout Foucault’s writings and particularly in The Order of Things with its open criticism of universal morality and man’s nature.

It was in The Order of Things that Foucault introduced the concept of the ‘episteme’, the unconscious structures that underpin knowledge in any particular time and place. Owing a great debt to Kuhn’s ‘paradigms’ (Kuhn, 1962), it is this epistemological field that forms the possibilities for knowledge in any given epoch.

 

 

The narrative of austerity

We live in an increasingly unequal society.

A working paper published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Research group, recently conducted an extensive investigation into the consequences of fiscal consolidation. It found that pursuing such a policy has significant distributional effects by ‘raising inequality, decreasing wage income shares and increasing long term unemployment’ (IMF, 2013)

This inequality is found in many other sections of society also and narrative is a primary driver of this iniquity. Research by the National Disability Authority claims a prevailing negative outlook is currently increasing inequality for disabled persons through social constructionism.

It argues that the negative portrayal of disability and its interpretation is exacerbated at community level where ‘negative attitudes can become structured into social patterns of segregation and discrimination’ (NDA, 2006).

Austerity conveys a strict, but even handed approach that belies the emotional scars it leaves on those subjected to its delivery as a policy. The language with which it is couched has been carefully constructed in order to placate and appease; alienate and divide. A flexible labour market sounds like a viable case to make but essentially, what is meant by the term, is the dilution of employment protection legislation. Austerity, despite its demure outward appearance, is nothing less than the socio-economic stripping of a citizen’s rights.

And above all these lofty ideals of competitiveness and fiscal consolidation, the spectre of ‘the market’ hangs. The deification of the market has been necessitated by a need to legitimise inter alia Westminsters attempts to reduce the deficit by the continued cutting of welfare payments, the increasing prevalence of zero hour contracts and slashing of public expenditure.

What is particularly difficult for an uninformed electorate to grasp is that this reality is being constructed and narrated in entirely abstract terms. This leads to an inevitable disenfranchisement and apathy. A feeling of the ‘us’ and the ‘them’.

Again, we must attempt to bring political engagement to all levels of society. In order to do this, we must construct a new narrative that is entirely inclusive.

The market is merely an abstraction, albeit a powerful one, and one with ‘no inherent moral character (Stiglitz, 2012). But as social constructionism argues, the framing of this abstraction and how it is communicated to and among the people is of greater significance than it’s ontology. Both austerity and globalisation are abstractions too, that serve primarily to persuade citizens such lofty concepts are outwith their understanding.

And the narrative of austerity is particularly well framed. For well framed arguments make it increasingly difficult to argue within. When a frame of reference becomes accepted in the public consciousness, or socially constructed, all data that repudiates the ideology is simply ignored as being ‘outside’ of the discussion.

To give an example,

When the European Central Bank (ECB) recently cut interest rates to an historic low, it did so to near universal acclaim. The cut was reported favourably without any apparent need for further analysis. When looked at in more detail however, it appears that precisely the opposite is the case. The ECB’s interest cut is in response to a Berlin-led policy of reducing budget deficits across Europe.

The ECB has cut interest rates in order to achieve an intended 2 per cent rate of inflation. Then inflation in the eurozone was around 0.7 per cent.

Most people would agree that close to zero per cent inflation is a good thing. Surprisingly however, it is extremely bad for those living on the margins of society as many in Scotland currently are.

If output prices are not rising, the producers of that product must make downward adjustments to the input price in order to make a profit. The most efficient manner in which to make a dent in input prices is to reduce wages, the largest input cost. This happens in two ways, through falling hourly rates, and where that is not possible, by reducing the size of the workforce (increasing unemployment) in order to force an increase in productivity.

The result is a rewarding of stockholders and company owners at the expense of those who depend on already scant wages in order to eke out a living, and a further widening of the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-not’s’. This is a policy that sits well with the social constructionist narrators of the austerity story, but will impact most heavily on those to whom that story is read.

In order to loosen the strictures of austerity then, a new social narrative must be formed entirely to combat the one we have been provided with by the ruling elite.

 

 

The importance of discourse and linguistics

Language is seen as central to a postmodernist understanding of self. Far from being simply a tool with which to describe the objects around us, language is seen as not only constituting but constructing reality.

An understanding of the part that language plays in the formation of human selves, human thought and human subjectivity underpins the postmodern perspective. (Howe, 1994:521)

Modernity assumed that power was increased by increasing knowledge of the real world. Postmodernity and particularly, social constructionism flips this on it’s head, claiming that discourse can create centres of power, or as Foucault would describe them, ‘regimes of truth’, that can influence presumed knowledge and understanding. That language and discourse not only describe things, but make things happen with inevitable social and political implications (Adams et al, 2009).

 

 

The Powers

Submissions by interest groups, stakeholders and by the Scottish Government have articulated already the need for full fiscal responsibility to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, alongside responsibility for all domestic expenditure including welfare policy.

I too propose that in order to live up to the pre-match billing of ‘Devo-Max’ as it was flaunted, all the economic levers, necessary to ensure a congruent policy framework – for inevitably, policies cannot be viewed or enacted in isolation without compromising the legitimacy of what they intend to accomplish – are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. These levers to include, broadcasting, transport, energy, the Crown Estate and immigration policy which as we will see subsequently must be viewed in tandem with policies concerning corporate governance, income tax, corporation tax and capital gains tax.

That which rightly ought to remain under the jurisdiction of the Westminster Government include,

  • Monetary policy
  • Foreign affairs
  • Defence
  • Security and Intelligence
  • Constitutional matters concerning the Monarchy

The delivery of these powers offers the most effective manner with which to preserve our union of nations. The negative sum game played by the markets whereby comparatively small gains by a precious few are offset by inordinately consequential societal losses must be addressed by the commission. Powers must be devolved to the Scottish Government that enable us to form the kind of government we wish to see. One that seeks to address the imbalance between private reward and social contribution. That wields the necessary powers to circumscribe those who profit from rent seeking, predatory lending practices, gambling on derivatives and the creation of asymmetries of information.

 

 

Media

Modern psychological research and the emerging field of behavioural economics provides further evidence that ought to be considered. Perception is a powerful indicator of not only ideas but also of productivity. A wonderful set of experiments conducted in India by Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey revealed the importance of social perceptions. In an experiment conducted with low and high caste children, puzzles were used to assess the impact of social perception upon performance. The results were striking.

Both groups of children were asked to solve puzzles. Initially this was done anonymously, revealing no caste difference in outcomes. When the experiment was conducted a second time in mixed groups and the low-caste children were known to be low caste, their performance was significantly lower than that of the high caste group.

Individuals absorb the perceived reality in which they exist. Their sense of inferiority created a reduction in their level of performance but only when surrounded by others that held the belief that the low caste group were inferior.

This experiment may appear on the face of it to have little to offer the discussion here, but it is significant in light of the media coverage that was seen in Scotland over the last few years.

There is a great danger when the realm of ideas is monopolized by one political voice as it was throughout the campaign. Only one newspaper came out in favour of independence and with the BBC displaying a casual disregard for impartiality, it is difficult to argue that the skewed political perception that remained ubiquitously throughout the campaign did not have a significant effect on the voting intentions and subsequent declarations of many people in Scotland.

It is imperative given the results of the experiment mentioned above and our discussion on the very real consequences of social constructionism that Scotland’s people are afforded the opportunity to create local, indigenous programming that reflects their views and not simply the views of the few. This will only happen with fully devolving broadcasting to Scotland.

 

 

A meritocratic democracy

The recent publication of the second State of the Nation report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission depicts a society in which the link between endeavour, and reward; between talent and success has been obliterated.

Fundamentally however, the idea of equality of opportunity is no less fantastical than the Minotaur. Social mobility is not only an abstraction. The reality being that high achievers will only do so if they are born into high achieving upper class families. Worse still, it will soon be the case that social mobility begins to be seen for those in lower and middle classes to exist only upon a downward trajectory. Middle classes involved in a race to the bottom, furthering the divide between the one per cent and the rest of the nation.

The spectre of inequality will continue to haunt our nation unless we are granted the transformative powers that will allow us to challenge inequality wherever we meet it.

London-centric policy implementation has heaped misery upon misery for those people living outside the United Kingdoms of East and West Central. By being so wedded to the ideology of capital market liberalization, the pandering Westminster elite ensure only the survival of those eating at the top table.

Economic recovery and social recovery are not the same thing.

 

 

Conclusion

The need for a new ‘social contract’ is evident. The Scottish Government must be able to ensure that social capital, rather than GDP is considered a better barometer of health than the overreliance and hysteria that often accompanies quarterly results.

We cannot countenance the depletion of social capital within our borders. As many leading minds have alluded to time and again, social capital is the glue that holds our society together. Refusing to acknowledge this point will lead to a further increase in distrust and more erosion of participatory politics as the electorate once again determine that their vote does not count.

Social Constructionism is not without it’s flaws and an extremist view of constructionism can be rebutted with rudimentary arithmetic (2+2=4), but an extremist viewpoint is seldom the most enlightened position to take and to dismiss social constructionism for views held by extremists on the periphery is to invalidate a methodology that is vital in addressing the skewed perspectives and narratives that underpin social inequality.

The danger then, is in overstating one particular ‘–ism’ over another as a praxis that is all encompassing and without limitations.

There is a seductive reasoning that truth is a linear beast. This is not the case. Enlightenment theorists were guilty of the same lack of respect. Pre-modernist thinking, dominated firstly by the Catholic church, then Calvinist reformers was once trumped by Western empiricism, hence the title conferred upon it as ‘enlightenment’ thought. An attitude exemplified by the philosopher John Dewey who posited that human history was evolving from the ‘primitive’ irrationalism of religion to a more ‘advanced’ modern age where science was centrally placed (Dewey, 1920)

Post modernists have similarly failed to appreciate this error. Knowledge is tangential, rather than linear and owes as much to hindsight as chronology.

The telos of a wholly participative society is still within our scope even if the goal of independence must be relinquished for the time being but the increasing alienation experienced by a disenfranchised electorate reduces the willingness to participate in a society that they feel is not for them.

The dissolution of the Vow will see an immediate return to the pre-referendum humdrum of politics where many look at the one person, one vote system and see that it means one pound, one vote.

This then, is the challenge for Scotland’s policy makers and the Commission. To firstly connect, then create with those that they represent, a new frame of reference and a new narrative within which to work.

Politicians and community leaders, must become social constructionist story tellers. Their stories must be written in unison with the electorate as opposed to the modernist reading of expert to witness. They must be better messengers with a better tale to tell. This will only happen if they permit the electorate to co-create their own narrative.

Politics frequently reveals itself to be as schismatic as any social science, but invariably, the battleground upon which these opposing policies go to war is littered with the bodies of the vulnerable to whom we are charged to protect. The impoverished. The voiceless. Caught in an intellectual crossfire that does not serve them, nor protect their interests.

Politics will always argue the odds over which particular path serves best the ends of the electorate but by ‘focusing on the local and the contextuality of the specific’ (Noble, 2004) we may help to build from the bottom up, a new narrative and a brave new telos for society, the architects of which will be the people themselves.

 

 

References

Adams, R., Dominelli, L. and Payne, M. (eds) (2009) Social work: themes,issues and critical debates. Third edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Ball, L., Furceri, D., Leigh, D. and Loungani, P. (2013) The Distributional Effects of Fiscal Consolidation. Washington: IMF (Working Paper WP/13/151)

Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1991) The Social Construction of Reality. London: Penguin Books

Burr, V. (1995) An Introduction to Social Constructionism. Routledge: London

Chambon, A., Irving, A. and Epstein, L. (1999) Reading Foucault for Social Work. New York: Columbia University Press

Dewey, J. (1920) Reconstruction in Philosophy. New York: Henry Holt

Foucault, M. (1973) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the human sciences. 1970 Reprint, New York: Vintage/Random House

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Continuum Printing Corporation

Gergen, K. (1985) The Social Construction Movement in Modern Psychology. The

American Psychologist 40, 3, 266-273

Hammersley, M. (1992) What’s Wrong with Ethnography? Routledge: London

Hannon, F. (2006) Literature Review on Attitudes Towards Disability (Vol. 9 of Disability research series). Dublin: National Disability Authority

Hartman, A. (1991) Words Create Worlds, Social Work, 36, 4, 275-276

Hoff, K. & Pandey, P. (2006) Discrimination, Social Identity, and Durable Inequalities American Economic Review 96, no. 2 206-11

Hoff, K. & Pandey, P. Making Up People: The Behavioural Effects of Caste Working Paper, World Bank

Howe, D. (1994) Modernity, Postmodernity and Social Work. London: Macmillan – now Palgrave Macmillan

Iverson, R. R., Gergen, K., Fairbanks II, R. P. (2005) Assessment and Social Construction: Conflict or Co-Creation British Journal of Social Work 35,1-20

Kuhn, T. S., (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Miller, J. (1993) The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon and Schuster

Noble, C. (2004) Postmodern Thinking: Where is it Taking Social Work? Journal of Social Work 4(3):289-304

Parton, N. & O’Brien, P. (2000) Constructive Social Work: Towards a New Practice. London: Macmillan

Payne, M. (2005) Modern Social Work Theory. London: Macmillan – now Palgrave Macmillan

Pinker, S. (2002) The Blank Slate. New York: Viking

Stiglitz, J.E. (2012) The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future New York: W. W. Norton and Company

 

Journals

Theory and Psychology (2001) – Special Issue on Social Constructionism, Vol 11 British Journal of Social Work

 

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