Imagine... Common Weal on both sides of the border

“Imagine...it's easy if you try”. It's a good lyric but John Lennon was not entirely accurate. What might pejoratively be described as airy-fairy and perhaps slightly wishful supposition is not particularly difficult. More is asked of us by the kind of creative, imaginative thinking which has the power to transform.

Can we imagine a better society? Do we want to believe this would be possible? This is the challenge laid down by Robin McAlpine, Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation whose emerging Common Weal programme is directed to consideration of Scottish independence: 'Imagine a better Scotland'. But it also offers people south of the border an opportunity – can we imagine a better England, a better Wales?

Let's look at some of the news stories of recent weeks. Mark Woods, who had complex mental health needs, starved to death after Atos passed him as fit for work and stopped his housing benefit and Employment Support Allowance, leaving him with £40 a week to meet all other needs. His doctor had written in support of his of his benefits application saying that he was "extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever."

Mr Woods was not an isolated case. When the WOW petition was debated at Westminster last week, supporters laid out 10,000 white flowers on College Green to represent all who had died within six weeks of being similarly found fit for work. It was an image that cannot be easily forgotten.

During the year to June 2013, Department of Work and Pensions figures show the benefits of 860,000 people were subject to sanctions – the highest since statistics in their present form began to be published. People who start with very little are left with nothing and food bank use is growing week by week.

Some sanctions are doubtless applied for persistent and wilful failure to comply with reasonable requirements from the DWP. But there is mounting evidence that far too many do not fall into this category. Being a few minutes late for an appointment, failing to understand an instruction, filling in a form incorrectly – even being at a job interview which the Job Centre has failed to record – all these have been used as reasons for removing benefits.

This injustice is now causing concern beyond the usual suspects. The right of centre think tank Policy Exchange (founded by Michael Gove and Francis Maude) yesterday (3 March) criticised these sanctions, saying that they are leaving claimants too poor to buy food. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20237) That this should be happening in what the Prime Minister recently described as “ a wealthy country” is simply insupportable.

Not only is our society becoming increasingly divided economically, a harsh and authoritative intolerance of the uses of protest in a democracy endangers the bodies and the freedoms of its citizens. Citing the riots of 2011 as justification, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has called for water cannon to be made available to the Metropolitan police by this summer. Potentially lethal weaponry on the streets of a democratic country cannot be a substitute for an honest and non-partisan examination of the social fault-lines and injustices which play their part in citizens taking to the streets.

So as we experience growing levels of injustice, discrimination and inequality, it is timely to be reminded of the need to think creatively about what a better society might look like. Common Weal is an old Scots phrase meaning both ‘wealth shared in common’ and ‘for the well-being of all’. The organisation uses it to describe the rejection of “40 years of grasping, me-first politics, a survival-of-the-richest, winner-takes-all mentality which left us all in second place.”

The creation of a society which, in Common Weal's phrase, would put “all of us first” requires a re-ordering of priorities. It would address the bases of wider prosperity by means of progressive taxation and financing the creation of jobs. It would boost both manufacturing and creative industries and redistribute influence by strengthening industrial democracy and reducing the dis-empowerment of workers by raising pay and curbing run-away top salaries.

It would ensure the security and dignity of those who cannot work and strengthen public sector and caring services. It would invest in the affordable housing and childcare which enable people to work and contribute to both the individual and common good. Energy supplies and transport services would be returned to public ownership to serve all the people – thus increasing the prosperity of the nation rather than the wealth of a few.

Accountability would be restored by devolving decision making as close as possible to those whom it affects and by adopting a proportional voting system which would gradually give the politically disaffected back a sense of ownership of their democratic representation.

In short, all our resources and potential would be used for the well-being of all our people and the levers of power would be removed from vested interest and patronage. The sclerosis of the status quo can and must be challenged. It will not be easy and it will not happen overnight. But if a new nation north of Carlisle comes into being on 19 September, there is every sign that it will show us the way.

That is the real reason that Westminster is afraid of Scottish independence. The greatest of all oppressions is to make people believe that change is not possible.

I think John Lennon would forgive me this small paraphrase:

“You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the people will live as one.”

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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