Comment: ‘Yes’ vote will make social change harder

FAR from solving Scotland’s social problems, breaking up the UK will make it harder to fight for the rights of those in greatest need, writes Alison Dowling

Breaking up the UK would not lead to social reform in Scotland, writes Alison Dowling. Picture: tSPL

Whilst the referendum is a significant event in Scotland’s history, it has seen issues like the fight against poverty pushed to one side – by hypocrisy, humbug and hubris. Referendum watchers might find this puzzling, after all, nationalists talk about poverty at length as part of their “positive” campaign. My problem is that they are using the most vulnerable members of our society as political footballs to fulfil their own ambitions. It is simply isn’t good enough, and does a disservice to political debate in this country.


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• We share our state pension across a population of 63 million people in the UK, making it more affordable. The costs of providing pensioner benefits in Scotland is projected to grow at a larger rate than the rest of the UK

• Scotland has a faster-growing older population than the UK, with the number of working age people growing more slowly. To offset this, we would require additional migration to Scotland of one million people by 2050.

• We currently spend £80 more than the UK per working age person a year on providing pensioner benefits in Scotland. Over the next 20 years, that figure is projected to rise to £200.

We have all seen the images on nationalist propaganda. The schoolgirl with the dirty legs, scuffed shoes and ragged skirt, we are told that voting to break up the UK will transform poverty in Scotland. Posters designed by marketing people who clearly have no real experience of dealing with poverty on a day-to-day basis and cynically exploiting the cuts and welfare reforms of the Cameron-Clegg coalition.

That is both insulting and offensive. I am no fan of the current UK Government. I decry the Orwellian scapegoating, their shaping of the poor into a cup into which they’ve poured the bitterness and blame for an economy wrecked by a greed-driven financial elite. But the referendum is a bigger issue than any one politician, party or current set of deplorable “reforms”

Governments last for a few years, punitive policies can be made good. Breaking Britain is forever. When SNP finance secretary John Swinney was presented with measures to effectively abolish the bedroom tax in Scotland using the powers already under his control, his response wasn’t to immediately help vulnerable people in Scotland, but to make sure that “Westminster wasn’t let off the hook”.

Using the poor to further nationalist ambition – what an astonishing, hypocritical response. Or consider the SNP Scottish minimum wage offer if we vote for independence, despite the fact that the SNP voted against Living Wage amendments proposed by Scottish Labour and supported by the Greens in the Procurement Reform Bill.

Nationalists who say “only independence” will transform poverty are, sadly, blinded by their passion. The reality is that major progressive reforms in the history of the UK were not just handed to us. Together working across the UK we fought for the NHS and won. We fought for the welfare state and won. We fought for pensions and won. We fought for the minimum wage and won. Women chained themselves to fences for the right to vote and won. Progressive change doesn’t just happen. It has to be argued for, fought for, and won.

This is the battle immemorial, and changing the constitution will not make this less so. In fact, the 
progressive movement would be weakened by breaking up the UK. The working classes who formed the labour Movement from Maryhill to Manchester, Leith to London would find themselves broken up, separated by a border when previously we worked together to improve all of our lives.

The nationalists tell us that Scotland could set an example to the rest of the UK after separation. Alex Salmond himself said we could be a “progressive beacon”, betraying an incredible amount of hubris that our friends and family elsewhere in the UK need an example set to them, when we have worked side by side with them to achieve change for years.

But it wouldn’t just be the poor and vulnerable in the rest of the UK missing out, those in Scotland who have the least would lose the most. Impartial groups such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies have calculated that a separate Scotland would face £6 billion worth of spending cuts or tax rises. Alex Salmond isn’t a fan of raising taxes. He would rather push his regressive council tax freeze which rips off the poor and offer nearly £400 million in tax cuts to corporations such as Starbucks and Amazon. So it would be public services on the chopping block. Of course, we are not told what specifically is at risk – be it our schools or our hospitals. Don’t believe it could happen? Ask the colleges, those working class ladders out of poverty who have lost 130,000 course places on the SNP’s watch. The White Paper had no serious strategy to tackle poverty. The headline offer of childcare was a cynical policy put forward because the SNP have a women problem, it now lies in tatters, having been totally uncosted in the first place. Like the smaller primary class sizes promised in their last manifesto, we are still waiting.

The fact is, we are far better placed to fight poverty as part of the UK than we are by breaking it up. By pooling and sharing our resources across 
63 million people rather than just five million people we can share risk and reward. We can fund our welfare state, our pensions and our public services more effectively. Scotland has the best of both worlds. Our powerful Scottish Parliament with more powers guaranteed by the 2012 Scotland Act, with more taxation and welfare powers to come, backed up by the strength, security and stability of the United Kingdom. This means that in Scotland in the Scottish Parliament, we can tackle poverty on a truly meaningful level by getting beyond a quick headline. I’ll be voting No and campaigning to keep the UK together because poverty doesn’t respect borders or flags. To end it, we have to work together.

• Alison Dowling is a credit union worker and anti-poverty campaigner who works with social housing tenants, local authorities and the NHS to mitigate against the health and economic impacts of financial insecurity.