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.