THE Commonwealth Games ended on Sunday after two weeks of (mainly) glorious sunshine. Glasgow and Scotland were looking their best.
But like the rest of Britain, Scotland has its share of low pay, poverty, poor housing and struggling services.
Scotland also has its share of gross inequality. In Glasgow’s Springburn constituency, the combined life expectancy is 69. In affluent Bearsden just a couple of miles to the north it is 79. Austerity and inequality take their toll.
This is why on the last full day of the Commonwealth Games, members of the Scottish People’s Assembly were out on the streets of Glasgow with leaflets highlighting tax injustice.
Tax expert Richard Murphy and Tax Research UK estimate that the annual cost of tax avoidance and tax evasion is £95 billion. That’s almost exactly equal to £96bn of cuts in expenditure that, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the Chancellor has yet to inflict in the name of austerity.
The Scottish People’s Assembly was launched at a mass meeting in Glasgow in January this year.
The launch was addressed by STUC general secretary Grahame Smith, MSPs from Labour and the SNP, Ricky Tomlinson of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign, speakers from Unite, Unison, PCS and RMT, community campaigners and Andrew Murray representing the British People’s Assembly.
The key task was identified as uniting trade unions and communities in fighting back against austerity policies, exposing their true motivation and putting forward alternatives that advance the interests of working people.
Since then trades union councils across Scotland have set up local People’s Assemblies in Dundee, Fife, Kilmarnock and Loudon, West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow and Irvine and North Ayrshire.
Local campaigns have taken up issues such as the bedroom tax, the sanctioning of benefit claimants — whihc is particularly bad in West Dunbartonshire — and, as a major danger for the future, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Treaty that threatens what remains of the welfare state with corporate takeover.
In Scotland, the People’s Assembly movement has been able to build on the previous work of the People’s Charter for Scotland — which had the backing of most major unions and the STUC and which launched its own petition to the Scottish Parliament in 2011-12.
This mobilised some of the early opposition to the bedroom tax, calling for evictions to be made illegal, and also included demands for private-sector rent control and the public ownership of rail and energy.
Are the issues in Scotland different from those in England?
In terms the scale of austerity, the answer is No. But in terms of the way the cuts have been administered and the underlying problems of poverty, the answer is Yes.
The SNP government has sought to protect the NHS and education from the kind of piecemeal privatisation that has been enforced in England.
At the same time it has imposed heavy general cuts on local government and frozen council tax.
Some 39,000 jobs have gone in local government in four years, with services for the elderly and those with disabilities particularly badly hit.
Scotland also has severe underlying problems of ill-health, poor housing and fuel poverty — problems that make effective public services all the more essential.
Some 72 per cent of local authorities in Scotland are in the bottom fifth of all areas across Britain in terms of life expectancy compared with just 15 per cent in England.
Fuel poverty is particularly bad. In 2012, 27 per cent of Scottish homes were in fuel poverty as against 10 per cent in England. Some 15 per cent of homes also suffer from dampness or condensation.
But in terms of poverty in general, Scotland is roughly average. North East Glasgow sits alongside Manchester Central, Birmingham Ladywood and Bethnal Green at the bottom of the league.
And unless there is resistance, everyone knows that the situation will get worse. Real wages will continue to fall while the government intends to cut the total benefit bill by a further third over the next four years.
It is this knowledge that is motivating local People’s Assemblies to get out on Scotland’s streets this summer.
By the time of the movement’s first AGM in Glasgow on Saturday October 4 it is hoped that many more trades union councils will have formed campaigns.
Locally, in most working-class communities in Scotland, organisation is weaker than it was a generation ago. Disadvantaged groups tended to be isolated. So are those who are most marginalised by low pay, casual work, zero-hours contracts and unemployment.
Nor are trade unions in an easy position — facing disabling anti-trade union laws and increasingly aggressive managements. But they still have resources and organisation. As has been demonstrated in Ayrshire, Fife, Clydebank and elsewhere, in combination with local activists, they have the ability to rebuild the confidence working-class communities, expose the real roots of austerity and to argue for the alternative policies contained in the founding statement of the People’s Charter.
This type of practical working-class unity will be essential whatever way the vote goes on September 18. That’s why the Scottish People’s Assembly steering committee want to make this a summer of mobilisation that starts to reunite people on class terms.
Phil McGarry is convener of the Scottish People’s Assembly.