Eddie Barnes: Westminster’s welfare plan has a cutting edge for referendum campaigners in both camps
ONE PROBLEM with large, cross-party campaigns is that there is no hope of ensuring everyone is pulling in the same direction.
Thus, on Monday, as the ‘Better Together’ campaign launched in Edinburgh, flogging the pro-Union cause, David Cameron in London was pulling it off the news networks with a major speech on welfare reform.
Given that Mr Cameron was sketching out plans to cap housing benefit, reduce entitlements to young people, and explore whether benefits could be paid in kind, the pro-independence campaign were quick to point out the irony of this so-called Union dividend. “While Darling launches the campaign to keep Scotland in the UK, Cameron reveals his plan to make it a more brutal place to live,” tweeted Patrick Harvie of the Greens. “They simply don’t think it matters if some people aren’t housed or some children not fed.”
On the topic of the Con-Lib Coalition’s welfare reforms, Mr Harvie’s contribution is representative of a large chunk of Scotland’s political class. The reaction has been hostile in the extreme. Speak to pro-independence campaigners, and these days they will quickly mention the welfare reforms. They say people are repelled by the cuts and have reached the view that independence is required to stop it.
But are they right? In truth, the picture looks complex. A YouGov poll published last week examined peoples’ attitudes to the spending cuts across the UK (the samples for Scotland are small but indicative). People in Scotland are certainly not convinced by the “no alternative” argument on the deficit; indeed the poll found they disagree more with this idea than anywhere else in the UK.
Meanwhile, asked whether specific cuts to benefits were necessary, the response was mixed or negative, especially on disability and housing cuts. However, another YouGov poll taken earlier this year, which asked people whether income tax should rise to pay for greater support found few takers, with similar views in Scotland to those found across the UK.
And asked whether the government was paying out too much in benefits and that they should be reduced, a clear 74 per cent of people in Scotland replied yes – the same as the UK as a whole. The poll also found that 42 per cent of Scots thought a ‘significant minority’ of welfare claimants fitted the description of “scroungers”.
It can be expected the mood will change as the severity of the benefit cuts kick in. But while the pro-independence camp is right to note there is support for devolving welfare to Holyrood, the jury remains decidedly out on whether people would then want a more generous system if it were to go there.
There is, however, a growing public appetite to tackle Britain’s chronic welfare trap, not least from people trapped. Politicians now need to do more to find ways of solving this massive problem – a far harder task than firing off furious tweets.
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