Euan McColm: Beware Nationalists bearing gifts

Nicola Sturgeon at the SNP Spring Conference. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Nicola Sturgeon at the SNP Spring Conference. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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HOW wonderfully reassuring ­opposition to the “bedroom tax” is: it confirms we care about the vulnerable. At least, it ­appears to.

It’s the issue of the day for opposition politicians, for whom the tax – or spare room subsidy – is the latest exhibit in their ongoing case that the Conservative Party is all things evil. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – a lawyer by training – is leading the prosecution in Scotland.

On Wednesday, during a meeting of ministers from Westminster and the UK’s devolved administrations, Sturgeon demanded the policy – which will mean social housing tenants with spare bedrooms must move to a smaller home or lose up to 25 per cent of housing benefit – be withdrawn. Her demand – the obvious pose – followed an SNP pledge that no Nationalist-led Scots council will evict anyone affected by the change in housing benefit rules.

The Deputy First Minister was in step with public opinion. Or, more accurately, opinion expressed in public. Thousands may have taken to the streets last weekend to protest, but a recent YouGov UK-wide poll – with a small Scottish sample – showed that three-quarters support the Westminster government’s cap on benefits. But, even if public opposition to the bedroom tax is not as deep as might ­appear to be, Sturgeon has lots to gain.

Debate over the issue lets her tell us a comforting story of the type of Scots we are. It’s the sort of nation-building narrative at which First Minster Alex Salmond excels. But, you’ll be (secretly) relieved to hear, the bedroom tax is not at the front of ministers’ minds.

Why should it be? On a practical level, it won’t have as big an impact in Scotland as it will south of the Border. Striking differences in housing stock – with a far greater proportion of larger homes in England – mean that fewer Scots will be hit. What’s more, it won’t have the same broad impact on voters as a policy such as the “poll tax”, to which the spare room subsidy is lazily compared. In that ­instance, everyone got a bill. The bedroom tax won’t hit everyone. With 100,000 Scottish households affected, it won’t come close.

On a political level, it’s not a winner. Nobody at the top of the SNP thinks that the voters who have kept them in power at Holyrood with such enthusiasm since 2007 have rejection of the bedroom tax at the top of their personal (and, therefore, crucially, important) wish-lists.

With their focus on next year’s independence referendum, the SNP wants to talk about welfare. The bedroom tax is a starting point, but watch the Nationalists change their focus to “good” benefits. You know, the benefits we all get as a reward for not being scrounging benefit claimants? The SNP wasn’t elected to government at Holyrood twice on the back of the support of society’s most vulnerable. It was elected by its most selfish.

The middle-Scotland voters who snapped up the Nationalists’ offers of free prescriptions and frozen council tax did so having heard Salmond’s repeated reassurances that a vote for the SNP didn’t necessarily mean a vote for independence. Having recognised these voters’ scepticism over independence, the party must convert them to the cause by September next year.

Those “good” handouts – child benefit, pensions – are way above the bedroom tax on the SNP’s agenda.

Fear of uncertainty plays a huge part in how people vote in elections. Surely it must play an even greater part in something as seismic as the creation of a new independent country? Now, with the old unionist argument that the UK is a model of financial stability dead in the water, the SNP can more plausibly offer certainty on welfare than ever before.

While Nicola Sturgeon tells us the story of our munificence, Finance Secretary John Swinney is working on the detail – and the headlines – of what the first government of an independent Scotland will promise its people.

Nationalist strategists can see as well as anyone else how important pensions are. During the era of reckless greed that preceded the global banking crisis, everyone’s future was rosy. Rocketing house prices were mistaken for guaranteed ­future prosperity, we all had soaring careers from which we’d retire at 50 to go sailing. The middle-class voters, who didn’t save when they should – or could – have, are vulnerable to comforting Nationalist words about higher pension rates. The same voters – most of whom believe in a benefits cap – are surely as susceptible to sweet whispers about, say, fully restored child benefit.

While the Nationalists work up pre-referendum day offers on the sort of “good” welfare we all love, their unionist opponents are bogged down in their own three-way row over bedroom tax, with Labour attacking the Tories and Liberal Democrats with whom they’re allied in the BetterTogether campaign.

A frequent complaint from those ­following the independence debate is that matters lack clarity. We want detail (even if we’re not always particularly detailed about the sort of detail we want). The SNP may yet have a mountain to climb, but on welfare they seem better placed than their opponents to offer clarity.

When those gleaming Nationalist promises arrive to tempt the voting masses – and be sure they will arrive – how does BetterTogether coherently argue against them while running a separate argument among themselves over whether the Westminster welfare model is fair or workable? That sounds tricky to me.

Of course, the bedroom tax does ­matter to the likes of Sturgeon, whose left-of-centre credentials are established. I’ve no doubt her opposition to it is sincere. But she’s a smart politician and knows that if she’s to advance the sort of social democracy she espouses in an independent Scotland, the nationalists need the support of Scots whose interests are fundamentally selfish.

The unfairness of the bedroom tax may be fuelling debate now, but by September 2014 the SNP will be talking to voters not so much about what the state is taking from others but what an independent Scotland will hand back to them. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm