ONE of the key arguments in favour of independence laid out in the Scottish Government’s White Paper is that an independent Scotland would be a more equal society, an objective that would be underpinned by a more generous welfare state and would reflect Scotland’s more social democratic ethos.
The Yes campaign often cites the so-called “bedroom tax” as an example of why London cannot be trusted to provide an adequate safety net for those in need.
In contrast, the No campaign argues that Scotland’s welfare state would be more safe and secure if it continues to be funded from the (larger) UK-wide pool of tax revenues. It often suggests this is particularly true of the one benefit we all hope to enjoy, old age pensions.
What should we make of these claims?
People in Scotland do have a somewhat more generous attitude towards welfare than their counterparts in England. According to the British and Scottish Social Attitudes surveys, 61 per cent of people in Scotland think that the government should spend more on benefits for people with disabilities, compared with 54 per cent of people in England.
Yet this does not mean that Scotland has been immune from the UK-wide trend towards a more censorious attitude to some of the less popular aspects of the welfare state. For example, whereas in 2001 just 26 per cent of people in Scotland thought benefits for the unemployed were too high and discouraged people from trying to find work, now the figure has doubled to 52 per cent. As our graph shows, this trend has occurred in almost perfect parallel with a similar change in England.
Moreover, those who propose to vote Yes in the referendum are only a little more likely to adopt a generous attitude towards welfare. While 68 per cent of Yes supporters think more should be spent on people with disabilities, so do 58 per cent of No voters. Although just 23 per cent of No supporters believe unemployment benefit is too low and causes hardship, the figure amongst those intending to vote Yes is, at 32 per cent, only a little higher.
In short, attitudes towards how generous the welfare state should be seem to play little role in most voters’ decisions about which way to vote in the referendum.
Meanwhile, although Scots are inclined to be a little more generous with welfare than are people in England, it appears that they would still prefer to see the benefits paid to people in Scotland to be funded out of UK-wide rather than Scottish-only taxation.
According to the 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, 58 per cent of people in Scotland believe that the benefits paid to people in Scotland should be funded out of UK-wide taxation. Just 36 per cent believe they should be funded by the Scottish tax payer alone. Meanwhile 61 per cent believe pensions should be funded out of UK-wide taxation while only 34 per cent believe they should be paid for exclusively from taxes raised north of the border.
Moreover, opinions on this subject do seem to make something of a difference to which way people are inclined to vote. Just 14 per cent of those who think that pensions should be funded out of UK-wide taxes say that they intend to vote Yes, compared with 58 per cent of those who think pensions should be funded from Scotland’s resources. So there is some truth in the claims made by both sides. Scotland is inclined to be a little more generous on welfare, though perhaps not necessarily as much as is sometimes suggested. But it is also not sure it wants to take on all the burden of paying for it.
• John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University