Peter Jones: Cutting the welfare ties that bind

Britain's social union, Alex Salmond tells us, will continue and will be invigorated after independence. Picture: Getty
Britain's social union, Alex Salmond tells us, will continue and will be invigorated after independence. Picture: Getty
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BRITAIN’S social union, Alex Salmond tells us, will continue and will, indeed, be invigorated after independence.

But what is this social union? What does the First Minister mean by it? And is it possible, counter-intuitive though it seems, that breaking a part of it is actually crucial to boosting his chances of winning a Yes vote in 2014?

It is now pretty clear that, in broad terms, Mr Salmond’s strategy is aimed at reassuring people that independence is not going to be a radical leap into an unknown, dark, and dangerous place. It is all about his government gaining control of things that can make a difference for the better, such as the tax system, while keeping things which are familiar and trusted, such as pound notes and the Queen.

In other words, the Scottish Government will get the powers to make a difference, but much will stay the same. As Mr Salmond said in his Hugo Young lecture to an English audience in January, 2012: “After Scotland becomes independent, we will share more than a monarchy and a currency. We will share a social union.”

What did he mean by “social union”? Reading the lecture, it seems he principally meant the “ties of family and friendship with our neighbours on these islands which can never be obsolete”.

That is a self-evident truth. I have these ties with family and friends in England, in continental Europe and across the Atlantic, as do many Scots. And apart from the cost and time spent crossing them, national boundaries do not loosen them.

But a social union involves more than this familial/friendship union. There are also, as Mr Salmond said, institutional and cultural links.

At their apex is the monarchy which, again self-evidently, will continue in the way that it does for Australia, Canada and the other members of the Commonwealth, provided, of course, that it is the will of the Scottish people for it to do so.

There has been some stuff from the Church of Scotland about the need for a separate, Scottish coronation in the event of independence. I can see the argument for that, given that the present Queen is the head of state for Scotland by virtue of that pre-political union, the Union of the Crowns in 1603. But given that the Queen is head of state of other Commonwealth countries without any such coronation, this seems simply a colourful technicality, as is the status of Balmoral Castle and Holyrood Palace, easily resolvable after a Yes vote.

It is a monarchically-tipped pyramid because beneath the peak is a whole layer of other institutions, some 900 existing because they are so decreed by a royal charter and a lot of them sporting the word “royal” in their title – from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A) to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

None of these seem likely to be dismembered by independence. The R&A is, after all, a global institution and the RNLI operates around all the British Isles’ coasts as though Irish independence never happened. The same, I am sure, will be true of British charities such as Cancer Research or the Salvation Army.

It could be argued that British trade unions ought not to be affected either. My own union – the National Union of Journalists – extends its reach to Ireland. Unions representing public sector workers, however, might be in a slightly trickier position. Devolution has begun to open pay differentials between people doing the same job, teachers and doctors for example, north and south of the Border. And in a public sector pay dispute in an independent Scotland, an SNP government might want, in order to reduce Scottish voters’ sympathy for the workers concerned, to resort to rhetoric about Scottish union representatives having their strings pulled by London barons.

Nevertheless, this second part of the social union, what might be called the societal union, ought to endure after independence.

But the third and most important part of the social union is the welfare union. Helping others who are in trouble, or just need a hand, is a basic social instinct. And the state, through all sorts of distributional payments – from unemployment, disability, and poverty alleviation benefits to a basic pension – plays a very big role in this part of the union.

And here, the SNP has a problem. The 2010 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that 62 per cent of Scots thought that the Scottish Parliament, rather than the UK government, should be making the decisions about welfare benefits. But do the people speak with forked tongue? The same survey found that 55 per cent thought unemployment benefits should be the same everywhere in Britain, while 63 per cent thought the state pension should be the same throughout the UK.

These findings are clearly contradictory signals about what will be a major issue in next year’s referendum. As the authors of a recent book* write: “Providing social welfare is not just a function of the state, but a way of binding it together.” It follows that if Britain is to be unbound, then unbinding social welfare is one way to do it.

Arguably, Mr Salmond is already doing that. As he said in the 2012 lecture, his government is promoting a social wage, the provision of “core universal services, rights, and benefits, some of which are no longer prioritised by political leaders elsewhere in the UK – such as free university tuition, no prescription charges, and free personal care for the elderly”.

Some may say this is welfare nationalism in action. Others might contend that it is nothing of the sort and is merely welfare unionism “plus” – riding on the British welfare union with some extra merrily-jingling bells. Promising more of the same does not look plausible – oil revenues cannot possibly simultaneously pay for tax cuts, increased spending, and an oil fund.

True welfare nationalism also involves ending the risk and resource sharing of the union. While nationalists might argue that, in pursuit of deficit-cutting, the British welfare state is being dismantled, unionists can retort that the cuts are little in comparison to the slashes occurring in Ireland, where the welfare state was never terribly generous to begin with.

Nevertheless, Mr Salmond must find a way to cut the welfare ties that bind.
• *Scotland’s Choices, by Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher, and Guy Lodge is published by Edinburgh University Press.