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Scottish values, social democracy and social welfare

Updated Wednesday, 1st May 2013

What are "Scottish values" anyway?

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Johann Lamont’s speech while notable in a Labour context, particularly a Scottish Labour context, was arguably even more significant in that it highlighted wider arguments around social democracy in Scotland. Shattering what had been widely heralded as Scotland’s social democratic consensus, the Labour leader’s speech also called into question the very policies which have come to be given symbolic status as key features of Scottish devolution and, arguably, of ‘Scottishness’ itself. That the Scottish National Party (SNP) attacked Lamont’s pronouncements as at odds with Scottish values, offers a clear indication of how the ensuing debate would travel. Again there are overlapping dimensions to this:

UK Government welfare reforms have been attacked by the SNP as out of step not only with the wishes of voters in Scotland but also as seriously at odds with Scottish values, values which Johann Lamont was also seen as implicitly attacking. Much of this is related to other claims that Scottish voters and the wider public in Scotland is in some way less hostile to people in receipt of benefit, that negative attitudes to welfare are more diluted in Scotland. There is however little evidence to support such claims, though in passing it is notable that much of the Scottish press are less prone to the moralising and punitive tone that accompanies much welfare reporting in England.

That the idea of distinctive ‘Scottish values’ is itself a subject of long-term conjecture and debate should not be taken to imply that it has no concrete effects, not least on policy making and the wider political climate in Scotland. Ambiguous though such sentiments are, it does not in any way diminish their potency in Scotland and since 1999, there have been repeated claims from both Labour and SNP politicians that their policies are in tune with such values or are underpinned by them.

In late 2012 and in the first half of 2013, Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have repeatedly made forays into the welfare debate, seeing therein enormous political capital for the vote yes for independence campaign. A question remains, however, as to why it took them so long to identify such issues as politically potent. At the March 2012 SNP Conference in Glasgow the Deputy First Minister argued that:

'Only independence can put a stop to heartless Tory welfare reforms that will punish the vulnerable and the disabled. And only independence will give us the tools we need to rid Scotland of the poverty and deprivation that still scars our nation and create the jobs and opportunities that will get people off benefits, not for Tory reasons, but for the right reasons.'

In subsequent speeches in late 2012 and in the first quarter of 2013, Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and other Scottish Ministers continued in a similar vein adding in several, by now quite familiar, themes that spoke of Scottish values and attitudes underpinning social policy and equity, promising a Scottish welfare system that would be driven by social justice and demonstrating a strong commitment to social democracy - one that had been seriously eroded elsewhere in the UK by successive governments, both Conservative and Labour. There was now, however, an added dimension to such claims – that the UK Government’s welfare reforms were not only ‘eroding the social fabric’ of society but also marked a radical departure from the foundations of the post-war British welfare state. Alex Salmond had previously flagged this line of argument in his Hugo Young Lecture in London in January 2012. Clearly speaking to an English audience, Salmond claimed that:

'…anyone who accepted the union partly because of the compassionate values and inclusive vision of the post-war welfare state may now be less keen on being part of a union whose government is in many respects eroding those values and destroying that vision… And looking at the problems of health reform now, I thank the heavens that Westminster’s writ no longer runs in Scotland on health issues. But the looming issues of welfare reform exemplify why Scotland needs the powers to make our own policies to meet our own needs and values.'

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