The political debate in Scotland around social welfare is distinctive in important respects from other areas of the UK. In part this distinctiveness also emerges not so much from what is happening in Scotland – but developments taking place in England. There is, for example, no widespread privatisation of the National Health Service (NHS) in Scotland – a process that appears to be developing a pace across key areas of NHS provision in England. Further, the ability of schools to opt out of local authority control and the emergence of new private and third sector operated ‘academy schools’ in England appears remote from a Scottish education system in which local authority managed comprehensive schooling remains by far the most prevalent mode of operation. And there is apparently very little appetite for the path that is being followed in England. The introduction of tuition fees for students in England, differences in other aspects of social policy making, in criminal justice policy and across a range of other issues means that the policy landscape of England and Scotland appear increasingly different – as do the debates to which these policy landscapes both reflect, and give rise. And it is within this context that arguments around social welfare policy have become increasingly central to the independence debate and to the future of Scottish society. It is also significant that the existence of a Conservative-lead government at Westminster, rather than a Labour one, has led to more vocal opposition to UK Government policies and in particular to the further roll-out of yet another set of welfare ‘reforms’.
By contrast, opposition to New Labour’s welfare reforms during the late 1990s and early 2000s was more muted in Scotland, in large part due to the fact that Labour could claim a sizeable political mandate from Scotland, and that devolution was considerably well-resourced in its infant years, meaning that policy divergence was possible with little concerns about overall resourcing.
What factors contributed to the increasing prominence of social welfare in the developing debate around Scotland’s constitutional future and the possibility of independence? There are a number of interrelated dimensions to this and it is not always possible to disentangle these different components. For the pro-independence campaign, the UK Government’s welfare reform agenda, combined with the uneven and unequal impact of austerity measures on the more disadvantaged sections of the population, has opened up a significant fault-line around which claims for full independence can be advanced. That independence could deliver a Scottish welfare system which driven not by austerity and punitive approaches to people experiencing poverty, but by more progressive policies, is seen as a key weapon in the independence debate.
What might be termed the ‘territorial politics of welfare’ is not unique to Scotland and there are examples of other nationalist, regionalist and federalist movements in other countries using a form of ‘welfare nationalism’ as means of generating support for increased autonomy. That Scotland has long had territorial distinctiveness in relation to the delivery of welfare and public services, reinforced by devolution, has provided a visibly different landscape around which such claims can be advanced. But there are other factors at work here also.
UK Government welfare reform has been seized upon by the Scottish nationalists and the Yes campaign more generally to argue that independence would protect Scotland from such measures. But until very recently, arguments for independence did not address social security and benefits issues so this marks a significant shift, largely on the back of unpopular UK Government welfare reforms. In December 2011 Scottish National Party (SNP) and Labour MSPs voted to withhold legislative consent for the UK Welfare Reform Bill. While the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh cannot prevent the UK Government changing the benefits system, such a move meant that these reforms are out of step with Scottish laws and necessitate the Scottish Parliament introducing its own legislation.
That this was the first time that the Scottish Government had withheld legislative consent for a UK Government bill highlights once more the increasingly central role of welfare in Scottish politics. It also marked a relatively rare coming together of SNP and Labour MSPs, both opposed to UK Government welfare reforms. But with such issues appearing to become ever more tied to questions of Scotland’s constitutional future, this was not to last. In September 2012 Johann Lamont MSP, Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, in a speech that received widespread hostility from both opponents and which generated a considerable degree of unease among Labour Party members in Scotland, marked a departure in what had been taken for granted as Labour’s strong commitment to universal welfare and the social democratic consensus that seemingly underpinned the delivery of social welfare and public services in Scotland. Such a departure was also viewed as threatening, at least potentially, Labour’s relationship with the trade unions and Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC). The STUC has remained neutral on the constitutional question but Lamont’s speech coming on the back of perceived Labour weakness in the defence of public services and social welfare may begin to dilute some of the long-standing hostility to nationalism that has been a feature of trade unionism in Scotland.
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In her speech, which has come to be known as the ‘something for nothing’ speech, Johann Lamont opened up the vexed question of how Scotland can continue to fund free tuition for students, free personal care, free prescriptions and free bus passes for older people, particularly in the context of growing economic and fiscal constraints. ‘Scotland cannot be the only something for nothing country in the world’ she argued, increasingly benefits and tax concessions would have to be paid for either through cuts or higher taxation elsewhere. These claims were by no means new but the particular argument being advanced by Lamont was that the rich in Scotland were benefiting from such measures, and that not only could this no longer be afforded, but also that the poorest were in fact paying for benefits for the wealthy. With Lamont’s arguments welcomed by the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson as signalling Labour’s gradual acceptance of Conservative thinking in this area, the SNP were not slow to remind people that the other famous politician to refer to the ‘something for nothing society’ was ex-Prime Minister and Conservative Leader Margaret Thatcher, and that only independence could guarantee that Scotland’s universal social policy services remain. In her speech to the October 2012 SNP Conference in Perth, Deputy SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon MSP commented:
'What we have is the Thatcherite Tories of Ruth Davidson and the one nation Tories of Johann Lamont. One Scotland, two Tory parties. Labour should be ashamed of itself… The unionist parties don’t just oppose independence - they want to roll back the hard won gains of devolution as well. Free personal care, medicines free at the point of need, bus travel for pensioners, education based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay. These are not signs of a something for nothing society. They are the hallmarks of a decent society and we will fight to protect them… The answer to Tory cuts is not to hit the elderly, the sick, the struggling family or the young person aspiring to a university education. The answer to Tory cuts is to control our own resources.'