Gaping hole at the heart of independence debate

It’s Carers Week and thanks to the efforts of the wonderful carers’ organisations, but mainly due to the downright doggedness of carers themselves, it’s big news.  And not before time.

For years, carers were invisible, despite the vital contribution they make to our society, their communities and most of all, their family members’ quality of life.  Fortunately, this second term SNP Government has made meeting carers’ needs a priority with a series of high-profile measures.  And while the burd welcomes them all, I can’t help wondering if priorities are a little skewed and not just a little politically expedient.  After all, carers are vocal – walking, talking, feisty fechters whose experiences have made them articulate, able and knowledgeable.  They’ve made themselves very hard to ignore, not out of want, but out of necessity.

Yet, if government – at all levels – and the state focused its efforts on meeting statutory and moral duties to people who are cared for, the load on carers would be very much reduced, and the need for Carers’ Weeks, Carers’ Parliaments and Carers’ Parliamentary Debates would diminish.  Carers would be able to get on with their lives – just like the rest of us.

But we are where we are. And every time someone like newly elected SNP MSP, Joan McAlpine, pens a fantastic article promoting the cause of carers, life seems a little brighter.  The battle for awareness is being won, even while the storm clouds of welfare reform are gathering.

The changes coming are truly awesome in their brutality.  No benefit recipient will emerge unscathed from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s overhaul of the welfare state.  Joan McAlpine is nearly right in asserting that Scotland has no say in these reforms, but also a big bit wrong.  It may be an inconvenient truth but we do still have 59 Scottish MPs and aided and abetted by Scottish campaigning charities and organisations, they are doing their best to fight the worst excesses in the Welfare Reform bill.

To suggest that these welfare cuts could be stopped if only we transferred full political and economic control to Scotland – as Ms McAlpine does – is facile and disingenuous.  These cuts will be scything their way through the fabric of people’s lives long before the ink is dry on the independence referendum bill.  And even if Scotland votes yes, there will be several more years of transition and pain before control is transferred.

In any event, this statement asserts an assumed truism:  that Scotland would stop these welfare cuts.  It also implies that given the chance, we would reverse them.  Inadvertently, Ms McAlpine  exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the independence debate.

At no point has anyone in the SNP leadership stated that the independence, the new union Scotland would seek with its neighbours, that would leave some powers and responsibilities shared across these islands, would include the transfer of the welfare state.  No doubt someone will pop up with a comment urging me not to be ridiculous.  Of course, they will say, assuming economic control will include creating a new Scottish welfare state.  Really?  Where has that been stated in recent times?  Others may wish to assume this might be the case but the burd would like an explicit assurance.

Indeed, I’d also like to be assured that Scotland will not simply import wholesale the welfare system in its current or soon to be current form, for this is one UK institution I’ll gladly leave at the border.  And it’s time we heard the SNP’s plans for re-imagining and re-configuring the welfare state in independent Scotland.

There are some commendable SNP values and principles that should underpin such proposals.  The party’s long-standing commitment against means-testing presumably means that a Scottish welfare state will be universal in its design and application.  Indeed, introducing free prescriptions and continuing free bus travel and free personal care suggests that such a commitment will carry beyond the boundaries of devolution.

Beyond this, things become murkier.  There is a commitment to index-linked pensions but will that be enough to give people dignity in their old age or will there be some kind of state or private top up?  What about disability benefits?  Support for those out of work?  Child benefit?  Income support and its many layered premiums covering every eventuality and circumstance?  Financial support for carers?

The idea behind a universal credit is admirable and necessary: the current maze of benefits is labyrinthine, some of it linked to need, much more linked to income.  It is impossible for people to know their entitlement without expert advice.  But the way that idea is being translated into practice is frighteningly ferocious and unnecessarily cruel.  In sweeping away these welfare reforms, would Scotland also dispose of the principle of a universal credit, of a single gateway to benefits?  If yes, how then do we ensure that people receive their entitlement without erecting unnecessary hurdles?

Fundamentally, we – the SNP – need to determine the shape and scope of a Scottish welfare state that guarantees protection for the most vulnerable and gives them and their families a decent standard of living.

Such detail has been slow to materialise.  Indeed, there are some in the SNP who consider that it is unnecessary to spell out such proposals until after independence is achieved.

Yet, independence is not a magic wand.  We cannot assume, nay simply believe, that economically cruel and politically illiterate welfare reforms will be stopped or reversed by the very fact of independence.  A position needs to be stated;  detailed alternatives need to be made plain.  Otherwise, many Scottish voters – like the carers whose vital contribution is being promoted and celebrated this week – might be deterred from voting yes without knowing the answers to the vital questions that impact daily on their lives.

The high political issues of defence, currency and foreign affairs are important in the independence debate, but it is the low political issues that will undoubtedly matter the most.


11 thoughts on “Gaping hole at the heart of independence debate

  1. It’s Carers’ Week?

    • Sure is – you mean you haven’t noticed? You didn’t want to be whisked off to Parliament to have good words bestowed upon you by our elected braves? No party at your local carers’ centre? Tsk tsk. You ungrateful wretch!

  2. As I tweeted earlier on, can’t agree with you on this one Kate, though its more a case of timing that principle.

    The shape, size and fabric of areas such as the Welfare State are policy issues that will be decided by the independent Scots Parliament and the first elected independent Scottish Government, not issues that will frame the constitutional set up of Scotland on the moment of independence. Thus I don’t believe these should take priority over debates on whether or not Scotland can afford independence and the pros and cons of becoming a nation state again.

    However that doesn’t preclude the SNP stating what their vision of an independent Scottish Welfare state would be and I’d welcome that debate within the Party, particulary as we’ll need a manifesto for the first post-independence General Election anyway!

    Other Parties should also up their game and even the Unionist parties should start working on alternatives, that doesn’t weaken their commitment to the Union but if (and I believe, when) Scotland becomes independent we need policy options for the governance of the country from all perspectives to allow us to a) have an initial election with parties with full manifestos, b) debate properly the options available, c) have someone run the country.

    • I don’t think we are so far apart. It’s less about having a new welfare state as part of the platform but more about the SNP elucidating clearly what independence will include and mean ie what is to be shared for the interim and what not; and as the Government of the day setting out different alternatives for a welfare state in independent Scotland – which does not at all preclude other parties doing the same or even trying to argue a defence for the current broken benefits system that penalises and denigrates people. There has to be better than what we get under the UK currently surely? Or what is the point of independence? A means to an end!!

      • I’m still, a month or more after Jim Sillars’ article, trying to figure out how indy-lite would work – would we still send scottish MPs to vote on welfare? Would they contribute to deciding the executive? Would we just accept whatever England decides?

        Baffled of Partick

  3. Realistically we will inherit the welfare state as it is. There has to be continuity – people can’t wait for us to develop a new system in between one benefit payment and the next/

    I think the real issue is do we then try and develop a whole new integrated tax and benefits system in one go as it were or do we implement reforms piece by piece?

    I can see arguments on both sides but agree it’s something we need to start fleshing out asap.

    • And you have uttered the view that fills me with dread frankly. If independence isn’t about doing things better and changing the worst aspects of the Union what is it for? People at least need the prospect of change and of different if going to be persuaded to vote yes for independence, wouldn’t you agree?

      • You have to balance the way you present the prospect of change with the promise of continuity.

        If you are on benefits the number one thing you need to know is that you will continue to receive those benefits after independemce. If you are not convinced of that – whether because of scaremongering by opponents of independence or whether because of a blurred message from the SNP – you would probably vote no.

        So it’s a question of providing certainty that the benefits that are currently received will continue to be rceived along with the promise that improvements will be made.

  4. Great piece, but if only the SNP had been resolutely against means-testing their Budget would never have fallen…

  5. The SNP has several years to work out its position on the welfare state unless this has been decidf at policy level at National Council or Conference , but speaking as a nationalist not a party member I would not know but Alex Salmond being a socialist would ensure that an independent Scotland would be a caring Scotland!

    • Apologies for the delay in posting your comment – sometimes hard to get a moment during even lunchtime to get back to the blog.

      And Alex Salmond as socialist? Hmmm, trying to get my head around that one!

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