Euan McColm: No room for benefit of the doubt as welfare reforms hit home

John Swinney
John Swinney
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WHEN he was campaigning to become leader of the SNP in 2000, John Swinney caused ructions among some of his colleagues with what now seems a modest and perfectly sensible ambition.

If they were ever to win an election, never mind an independence referendum, the Nationalists had to ­become, he said, the party of aspirational Scotland.

This was radical stuff for a party whose members saw themselves as outsiders, battling against an oppressive British state. Aspirational Scotland? The stench of sell-out was unbearable, don’t you know? A large section of the SNP ­membership couldn’t come to terms with Swinney’s dangerous programme of modernisation and proceeded to make his life an unmitigated misery.

The SNP finally caught up with Swinney in 2004, around the point at which they knifed him and replaced him with the ­returning Alex Salmond, whose call for the party to become the standard bearer for aspirational Scotland was hailed a splendid idea. Why didn’t someone think of it sooner?

We know now that policies pitched at the aspirational middle classes – years of council tax freezes, free prescriptions, free university places – transformed the fortunes of the Scottish Nationalists. They have protected the better off since 2007, and reaped the electoral rewards.

But tomorrow – for the first time in recent memory – a large swathe of aspirational Scotland will not be able to turn to the SNP government for comfort. Cuts in child benefit – with reductions starting for anyone earning more than £50,000 and the complete withdrawal for anyone topping £60,000 – will immediately hit more than 50,000 Scottish families. And watching closely will be Swinney, now the longest serving finance minister in Holyrood history, and the SNP cabinet secretary most keenly aware of the need for his party to continue to woo the ­middle classes.

Swinney relishes the political battle over benefits and how independence would impact on who gets what. I can understand why. Labour, as the largest and most influential political party in the Better Together campaign, has a problem here. Were we talking about a Holyrood election, then any pledge made by the ­Nationalists would be open to trumping by the opposition, but Labour doesn’t have that luxury on benefits. Their ­argument in favour of the status quo ­necessarily demands ­acceptance of the ongoing cuts being made at Westminster.

While the New Year brought with it fine talk from both sides of the referendum campaign about the need for a respectful, positive debate in 2013, the reality will be that the SNP relentlessly attacks Labour – and the broader Better Together campaign – for supporting “Tory cuts”.

There is no rush for the SNP to bring forward detail on what they would do with benefits in an independent Scotland. Instead, senior Nationalists want to open a broader discussion about what Scots want from a benefit system. With Labour backed into a corner on the issue, I think the Nationalists will have their way.

From within the Scottish Government comes the message that this debate – for now – will not be about what the SNP would do in an independent Scotland, but about what anyone could achieve with independence. As the rhetoric of welfare reform becomes reality, Scots will surely be ready to listen to what the Yes campaign proposes.

There’s a mixed response in Labour ranks to the child benefit issue. Optimists point to recent polls which show the ­party with a 10 per cent lead over the Tories in Westminster voting intentions. If it looks like Labour is going to win the next ­general election, say some in the party, then they’ll be able to reassure Scots that benefits will be safe.

That’s a perfectly lovely thought for a Labour politician to indulge, but those polling figures – 39 to 29 per cent – must come with a health warning. The same poll gave UKIP 15 per cent and the Lib Dems just eight.

Back in 2010, UKIP managed to win just 3.1 per cent of the vote at the general election. Labour MSPs banking on their Westminster colleagues breezing back to power should ask themselves whether much of that UKIP 15 per cent will return to the Tories when an election comes round. They should also brace themselves for some lift in Lib Dem fortunes.

The alternative view in Scottish Labour is that child benefit cuts are a very difficult problem for the Better Together campaign. One of the sharpest Labour MSPs described it to me as “a terrible ball ache”, which is both pleasingly blunt and, I think, accurate. Labour will want to cast doubt on the SNP’s details on ­benefits. That will be difficult to do while the ­Nationalists throw those “Tory cuts” bombs.

There could be still greater trouble ahead for the No campaign. The Scottish Government may, for now, want to discuss what an independent Scotland might be able to achieve, regardless of who is in power at Holyrood, but, as the 2014 referendum approaches, the SNP will have to present a more detailed manifesto of what it would do as the first government of an independent Scotland.

There will be no more time for the Nationalists to discuss with interested Scots how best they might run a benefits system. We will expect from them an offer. We will want to know what’s in it for us. We already know what Labour and the other unionist parties will be selling when it comes to welfare: the idea that Better Together applies just as much to the bad times as the good. The SNP, on the other hand, will have cards to play.

Swinney has been a driving force of those key policies that made the Nationalists electoral box office. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his next big promise – just in time for referendum day – is the restoration of child benefit for all.

Twitter: @euanmccolm