I AM glad that the motion proposed by the Maryhill & Springburn branch at the SNP Spring Conference has opened a debate on the so-called gig economy and has spurred Scotland’s leading Tory nationalist and my good friend Michael Fry into some (re?)thinking on the subject.

READ MORE: Michael Fry: The gig economy is a revolution – we can’t apply to it the past’s principles

When I studied philosophy in my youth, we were told the first task was to define the terms of the debate with clarity and precision. When the premises are vague, the outcome will be unsatisfactory. Gig economy is, as Michael says, a new phenomenon in the development of capitalism and to the best of knowledge no economist has produced a definition, but Michael surely makes it too easy for himself when he extends the term to take in not only surgeons who are already employed by the NHS but who take on private work, but also actors, musicians, photographers etc. By the way, is he really suggesting that the plumber who made £50,000 per annum from work with some local authority in Lanarkshire is in any sense representative of the new trend?

Self-employed workers, plumbers or joiners and the like, have always existed, as have creative people who could not ever be regimented into routine work, but it will come as a surprise to any economic theorist to discover that Michelangelo, Mozart, Charles Dickens or the Beatles to choose examples at random, were early instances of gig economy. To make the terms of the debate so elastic is to deprive them of all meaning.

Michael focuses only on the winners in today’s conditions, on those who have the innate skills to be able to thrive in any climate. That is certainly the case of medics who work in the public sector and who can switch over to the private sector when it is in their interest. In parenthesis, can I suggest that such people are not necessarily as high-minded as Michael suggests? Experience suggests that no matter how highly paid people are, they would always like just a little more, and I imagine that it is as likely that his surgeon who moves between the public and private sector is motivated as much by the drive to earn a little more as by the wish to alleviate pain for those well enough paid to be able to afford his/her services.

Instead, the debate should focus not on the genuinely self-employed but on employees, on those who work in large enterprises where the product is created by joint effort, and where the fruits of labour should be equitably shared between employers (or owners) and employees. That was the demand made by trade unions and socialists in, for example, the ship-building yards or the great steelworks like Ravenscraig. Those industries have gone, but the demand that fairness in the distribution of profits be shown by the new gig employers, Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon etc must be put afresh, precisely because the conditions are new. The fundamental choice, and it is ethical before it is political, is between the privileged and the unprivileged, between the powerful and the powerless, between competition and co-operation in the workplace. It always was, but it requires to be restated in changed conditions. I cannot fathom why an expectation of fair pay, holiday pay, sickness allowance should be viewed as a move back in time or into some fantasy land. They are based on a sense of decency between human beings.

Of course, Scotland cannot impose a new international economy, but it can state and set its own standards of fair treatment, particularly for the weaker elements in the workforce who seek employment in powerful firms. It is unjust that they should be treated arbitrarily. Michael Fry will, I am sure, agree with that abstract principle but it is time to find ways in which that principle can be applied. To discuss only those who prosper in the new climate does not advance the debate.

Joe Farrell