Poverty and Independence

In important ways, the Independence debate is not simply about opposing constitutional futures but in different ways goes to the very heart of the kind of society we would wish Scotland to become. Central to this are arguments that revolve around issues of disadvantage, poverty, inequality and equality. The term ‘social justice’ has frequently been deployed in these debates by the opposing camps, but its usage has hardly helped us grasp what it actually means, beyond something that ‘of course’ we should all be ‘in favour of’. However, that the term is being used immediately marks the political and policy-making landscape of Scotland as distinctive in important regards from other parts of the UK, and in particular from the Westminster dominated landscape in England. But before we get carried away and attach to this an importance it has yet to merit, the picture of poverty and disadvantage in Scotland today shows the extent to which our society is disfigured and scarred by the impact of the policy approaches of successive governments and rising levels of inequality.

Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond, shows in
stark terms the ‘headline’ poverty statistics which demonstrate that:

– 870,000 people in Scotland still live in poverty (17% of the population).

– 200,000 children in Scotland still live in poverty (20% of all children).

– Poverty in Scotland is significantly higher than in many other European countries.

– Poverty exists across Scotland. Nearly all local authorities in Scotland have council wards where over 20% of their children live in poverty.

That there was some reduction in poverty levels during the first decade of the twenty-first century is to be welcomed. But the picture for the period ahead shows that not only have modest reductions been halted but there will be an increase in the levels of poverty in Scotland, as in other areas of the UK. By 2020 it is estimated that an additional 100,000 children in Scotland will be living in poverty.

‘Austerity’ as a Political Project

There are a number of related factors at work here that account for this deteriorating situation. David Cameron’s claim that a ‘new age of austerity’ was required, meaning large scale cuts in public expenditure, was accompanied by a new phase of what is euphemistically termed ‘welfare reform’. A total £22 billion of cuts to the annual value of UK benefits and tax credit support is being made by 2014/15. It is estimated that between £1.6bn (around £480 for every adult of working age) and £2bn will be cut from Scottish household incomes. The Scottish Government has calculated that the cumulative impact of UK welfare reforms over the five years to 2014-2015 could result in the welfare bill for Scotland being reduced by over £4.5 billion.

The idea of ‘austerity’ has entered political, popular and media discussion across the country today. It is presented almost as a technical term, devoid of any political basis, seemingly neutral in that the main Westminster political parties all saw ‘austerity’ cuts as offering the only way to economic growth and fiscal health. Alongside the idea of austerity other phrases came to be popularised: ‘sharing the pain’ and ‘we are all in this together’ were among the most notable of a plethora of terms deployed in an effort to convince us all that everyone should suffer in largely equal measures.

However, it is important to take a much more critical view of ‘austerity’: it was never going to be ‘equal’ or ‘fair’ in its impact – nor was it intended to be. It was a political project, a class project to redistribute wealth and income to the already privileged; at its most basic it was a deliberate plan to reduce fiscal deficit by slashing public spending, public services, and, significantly, pensions and other welfare benefits. These cuts impact most adversely on those who are already among the most disadvantaged in society.

However, in some regards this is still a somewhat superficial appreciation of what austerity signifies. It is also about an assault on the very social contract that was held by successive generations of people in the UK to be a core part of UK citizenship. Cutting wages, in work and out of work benefits, pensions and the social wage more generally, that is the range of public services, is also about restoring conditions for profit and wealth accumulation. This amounts to little more than the transfer of wealth and power into ever fewer hands – the consolidation and advancement of the economic and political interests of the already rich and affluent.

Social Welfare and the Scottish Independence Debate

Since devolution in 1999, the Scottish Parliament has been a largely social policy making institution with many of the ‘bread and butter’ areas such as housing, education and health under Scottish Government control. Other central policy areas such as most taxation, social security, benefits and employment policy, remain under the control of the UK Government and it is the devolution of these areas, or their incorporation in a Scottish welfare state in the context of an Independent Scotland which is becoming an increasing element of the debate around the creation of a more ‘socially just’ Scotland. This also marks a divergence from debates around welfare in England. There are different factors at work here.

In 2011-12, total public sector expenditure for Scotland was estimated to be £64.5 billion, this was equivalent to 9.3% of comparable total UK public sector expenditure in 2011-12, so a higher proportion than Scotland’s share of UK population at around 8.38% at the time of the 2011 census. This is accounted for by Scotland having more people on low income, a larger share of pensioners and a larger number of people with disabilities. Social protection was the largest Scottish expenditure programme and together with health expenditure, it accounted for over half of total public sector expenditure for Scotland and this equates to around half of Scotland’s GDP. Welfare reforms and changes in the public sector are felt far and wide across Scotland and these also in no small part contribute to the on-going political controversies around the role of social welfare in both the devolved and a potential Independent Scotland.

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 NHS in Scotland – a process that appears to be developing apace across key areas of NHS provision in England. Differences in other aspects of social policy making, in education policy, criminal justice policy and across a range of other issues means that the policy-making landscape of Scotland and England appear increasingly different – as do the debates to which these policy landscapes both reflect, and give rise. This is the context in which arguments around social welfare have become increasingly central, both to the Independence debate and to the future of Scottish society.

The Scottish Government and UK ‘Welfare Reforms’

UK Government welfare reforms have been criticised by the SNP Government as out of step not only with the wishes of voters in Scotland but also as seriously at odds with ‘Scottish values’. 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. Throughout the past 2 years, leading Scottish Ministers have repeatedly made forays into the welfare debate. 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 SNP Ministers continued to push this line adding 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. It was further claimed that 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.

The SNP have been only too willing to seize on UK Government welfare reforms to advance the case that only an Independent Scotland with a distinctive Scottish welfare state is true to the foundations of the post-war UK welfare state, a welfare state that is being progressively eroded in England. Therefore the future state of welfare across the UK is likely to be characterised by even more divergence and complexity, but again this is also being driven by developments in England as much as it is by proposals for further devolution – or independence – to Scotland.

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, ‘Fairness’ itself remains a key goal but as yet undefined with little clear indication of what it might mean in a future Scotland. There are numerous questions thrown up about the future shape of welfare in Scotland. What would a Scottish tax regime look like? How could it generate more income for Scotland on a more equitable basis? 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?

Towards a Scottish Welfare State: A New Vision for Welfare in a New Scotland?

The debate around what kind of welfare state Scotland should have is of course a debate around the kind of society we would wish to see Scotland become. That this is directly linked with the question of Scotland’s constitutional future is all too evident. But it is not a debate that is limited by constitutional matters alone. That there is a debate around the future of Scotland’s welfare system brings into sharp focus the question of poverty and of inequality – but also wider issues of the kind of economy and society that would be necessary for the eradication of poverty. That this is leading to new thinking around new forms of welfare system is positive and to be encouraged but at the same time the challenge is also to advance the issue of poverty in a way that is free of stigma and disrespect now. We cannot afford to wait for Independence or any other future constitutional arrangement to be bedded down before rethinking poverty and anti-poverty policy.

In the Independence debate the notion of ‘Common Weal’ as the basis of a distinctively Scottish welfare system has risen to prominence. In a series of papers published by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, proponents of the Common Weal have advocated a far reaching vision of Scotland as a fairer, progressive and more sustainable society. Looking to some of the fairest economic and social policies in the Nordic countries, it places an attack on entrenched inequality and wealth by a completely revamped taxation system that would enable better quality, well-funded public services. Social goals would drive economic development, not the pursuit of private profit. A new set of principles would underpin a Scottish welfare state, in the form of contract between people in Scotland delivered through the state. The Radical Independence Campaign has further drawn attention to the stark realities of a class divided Scotland, highlighting the vast inequalities in wealth and income that are also a feature of Scottish society. A major redistribution of income and wealth and an assault on vested interests and entrenched privilege it is argued is central to an effective anti-poverty policy.

Scotland is, despite myths of collectiveness and a Scottish ‘national interest’, a society marked by class divisions and inequalities. Not only does this manifest itself in the huge and wider levels of poverty but in the huge advantages that Scotland’s rich enjoy today and, in the SNP vision of an Independent but low tax and competitive Scotland, would continue to enjoy. The Independence Referendum however throws-up the possibility of building a new Scotland, a socialist Scotland in which the vested interests, privilege and advantages of the affluent will be seriously challenged. Only in this way will the scourge of poverty and disadvantage in Scotland be removed once and for all.