“All [the Scottish Government] did was to guard the distant and invisible interests of distant and invisible masters”
― Franz Kafka, The Castle
“Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.”
― Karl Marx, Capital
On Monday Westminster blocked access to labour justice for thousands of working people, by introducing charges to access employment tribunals in cases of exploitation or mistreatment. Tribunals, though they do not directly influence the justice of the labour market itself, allow a semblance of parity between worker and employer when cases are brought into the sphere of civil justice. By restricting access to tribunals the Coalition has undermined rights the labour movement has fought for, such as redress for harassment, appeals against unfair dismissal, and equality of treatment.
The labour contract between worker and capitalist, being a bigger determinant to people’s lives than the social contract between citizen and government, should be an issue of concern for the Scottish Government which, while it has no direct authority over workers’ rights, claims to speak for the people. Yet Labour MSP Drew Smith’s account of his effort to raise the tribunals issue shows the disinterest of the Scottish Government on issues of workers’ rights.
“I have for some months been attempting to interest the Scottish Government in the decision of the UK Government to introduce charging for access to employment tribunals, particularly in light of the expected transfer of tribunal administration from the Ministry of Justice. So far, I have been knocking on a firmly closed door.”
This account has telling resemblances to K’s attempt to enter the Castle: admittance to the centre of bureaucratic power comes only through acceptance of the administration’s state of mind, and view of society. Drew Smith, a shadow Minister and Chair of the Trades Union Group of Labour MSPs, has no admittance to the Scottish Government as an advocate for working people. He had to turn to the letters pages of the Evening Times to bring workers’ rights into the frame and challenge Scottish law firms and businesses, arguing that the reforms will mean “ordinary working people will be priced out of justice”.
This displacement of the issue of access to employment tribunals is part of a general exclusion of the most crucial of conflicts, the worker-employer relationship, from Scottish parliamentary debate.
Although the Scottish Cabinet tend to be willing to work with the STUC and sometimes with individual unions, their willingness to contract blacklisting companies, and their whip-line on their MSPs not to sign Unite’s anti-blacklisting pledge, are two recent instances of their notorious record on workers’ rights.
Salmond is canny in paying honour to the unions, while leaving substantial issues of workers’ rights and the labour market out of his administration’s concern. At this year’s STUC Congress the First Minister said trade unions play a “valuable and important role” in Scottish life. In the face of assaults from Westminster, trade unionists are right to feel reassured that “the place of Scotland’s trade unions is absolutely secure with this administration”. But for those who wish to increase the role of trade unions in society and in government, such a phrase is cause for concern. A corporate director is bound to be pleased if the limited place of trade unions is ‘absolutely secure’.
The King’s conciliatory politics allows his Court to claim to speak for trade unionists, workers, and people on low wages, alongside their alternative agenda to be the voice of the business lobby and the middle classes. Conciliatory politics are contradictory politics, but to the SNP the claim to speak for all the people of Scotland makes perfect sense.
Because of the limits of devolution, the SNP do speak for ‘the people of Scotland’ insofar as they are users of those particular public services over which the SNP preside. The economic sphere of zero-hour contracts, tribunals, unpaid overtime, unregulated overwork, remain, in the eyes of Scottish Government, excluded from their own view of society – though evidence of worker-employer relationship is to be found in the workplace, in streets, in the Jobcentre, in the boardroom, and in the Evening Times. There’s plenty on the dole in the land of the leal.
The SNP are bourgeois in the old sense that they are concerned with people as they operate freely outside work. They deal with the public as a body of burghers, not workers. Through this lens they come to believe that all a government can ever do for the working class is to implement measures to improve people’s ability to enter the labour market, through skilling-up individuals, informing people of jobs available, attracting business to Scotland and creating ‘shovel-ready’ projects. But they ignore one of the central features of class politics: that we can, through political action, change the conditions of the labour contract itself.
Alex Salmond, while he backs the place of trades unions in society, describes the Scottish Government’s own duty to citizens, businesses and trades unionists alike as the upholder of the social contract of universal services, “based on a sense of public good and the common weal”. Indeed, their position on the lack of need for government control of the labour market is not dissimilar to the facile ideals of the “Free-trader Vulgaris”, described thus by Marx:
“The sphere within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on [is the sphere where] both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will… and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things… work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all”.
But there is a deeper reason for the exclusion of class from Scottish politics. It was not the SNP who displaced class from Scottish politics but the architects of devolution who allowed no issues of economic contracts to pass the Castle’s firmly closed door, behind which the Court sits in social democratic consensus. The SNP hold Court having played social democracy better than the other parties, in a system where class was already excluded – all parties uphold this politics because it is the way to win power. We often forget that power was held for almost a decade in Scotland by a Labour and Liberal coalition, the first to inhabit the Castle and set the social democratic agenda.
This Castle’s politics are those of universal social rights. Unlike workers’ rights or women’s rights, the rights it deals with apply to everyone – everyone gets old; everyone has an education; everyone can use the right to free prescriptions. Underwritten by a pseudo-egalitarian ethos, our sovereign regards everyone as equal in the eyes of a universal social provider. This appearance of equality, this gratifying sense that we all are equal in the eyes of the Scottish Leviathan, has perpetuated the social democratic consensus and has kept class struggle from intruding in Scottish politics. Working issues and contracts are never the sphere of equality with which the Scottish Government is concerned. The people of Scotland are not sovereign, just equal as regards the limited might and power of the Castle.