At the time of writing this collection in April 2013, the Scottish National Party (SNP) have increased the focus on social welfare issues. On the weekend of 23-24th March 2013 at the Spring Conference in Inverness, once more Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon led on social welfare issues arguing that in an independent Scotland a ‘transformational shift’ in childcare policy will help women get into work, benefiting both the Scottish economy and society. The SNP leaders also argued that in an independent Scotland the UK Government’s much heralded and much criticised reform of housing benefits, dubbed the ‘bedroom tax’, would be abolished.
Social welfare issues are and have been central to other perspectives in the independence debate and around the idea of a ‘fairer Scotland’ more generally, though in passing it is also worth noting that the pursuit of fairness and social justice was also identified in the early years of devolution as key objectives for the Scottish Government and were advanced as a selling point for devolution itself. ‘Fairness’ itself remains a key goal but as yet undefined with little clear indication of what it might mean in a future Scotland.
Take your learning further
Devo Plus – for more powers for the Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom
Reform Scotland – advocating further devolution of powers within the union
Roger Cook - Social Exclusion in Scotland, The Scotland Institute July 2012
Kevin McKenna, Observer columnist – 'Coalition doing Salmond’s job for him'
The controversies and arguments around social welfare in the independence for Scotland debate continue and it is clear that in the run up to the September 2014 referendum, these issues will come to take on an even more powerful resonance. In the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, almost two-thirds (64%) of those polled in Scotland believe that the Scottish Parliament should make the important decisions for Scotland about the level of welfare benefits, while 56% say the same about tax levels. This evidence can of course be taken as a signal of support not only for independence but also for devo-max. We have seen here in this collection that politicians from the main political parties in Scotland have reflected wider public concerns about social policy and social welfare issues in their arguments for and against independence. Further, such arguments have been made against the backdrop of a wider UK context in which rising levels of income inequality and a much harsher UK Government approach to welfare spending and benefit entitlements, have not only called into question once again the mandate for the UK Coalition in Scotland, but simultaneously been tied to the case for independence.
The Scottish Government has yet to fully cost a Scottish welfare system and this has left the SNP open to attack by opponents. However, work has begun on developing proposals for a Scottish welfare state. Scottish Government ministers have set out their vision on welfare in an independent Scotland in Your Scotland, Your Voice and in Working for Scotland: The Government’s Programme for Scotland 2012-13. The Deputy First Minister established an Expert Working Group on Welfare to review the cost of benefit payments in an independent Scotland upon independence and the delivery of those payments in an independent Scotland.
Important questions remain. What would a Scottish tax regime look like? How could it generate more income for Scotland on a more equitable basis? What might a Scottish welfare state look like? What sorts of social provision could be developed with a higher tax base? How could this be used to tackle poverty and promote greater equality and fairness for Scotland as a whole? We are left with the idea of fairness itself. As was noted above, this is also vague, open to many differing and contrasting interpretations and viewpoints. While for the SNP-led Scottish Government, having the key economic and fiscal levers under Scottish control is the key to a fairer Scotland, this also betrays other influences on SNP thinking and policy making. The SNP have a pro-business agenda, tied to the idea of a more competitive Scotland, a programme of social welfare predicated on an economic growth model in which poverty and other social problems can be overcome. There is no sense of far-reaching redistribution of wealth and income, or of an attack on vested interests, such as Scotland’s rich, in such an agenda. Against this there are other arguments that fairness can only come about through challenging the major inequalities, and sources of inequality, that exist within Scotland itself, for example, inequalities in and at work through improving the rights of workers and so on. This will bring challenges to all the main political parties in Scotland and it remains an issue as yet they have not faced up to.
Finally, there is considerable uncertainty over the vision for a Scottish welfare state that will emerge over the next few years. Might this be a Scandinavian model of social welfare – or a system which represents a more residualised form of welfare? While the SNP appear to be holding out the possibility of the former, for the Better Together and No to independence campaigns, there is a difficult political balancing act to be made: espousing a positive pro-Union message and vision in an era of austerity, far-reaching welfare reforms and growing inequality. For the Labour Party in Scotland in particular this may be a daunting task: being pro-Union (and of course that also allies them with the Conservatives) but also simultaneously laying claim to UK social democracy, a social democracy which is not only under attack by the Conservative Liberal Democrat UK Coalition Government, but which under New Labour also seemed to be a pale shadow of the social democracy of the heyday of the post-war UK welfare state. Labour is in favour of the devolution of further fiscal and tax raising powers to Scotland, but not of the devolution of the welfare state itself. This in turn leaves it vulnerable to attack by the SNP. The debate and arguments will go on.
These are certainly interesting times for the discussion of social policy and welfare in Scotland – but these are also issues and matters that have a resonance across the British Isles – and beyond.