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Restating Scotland: beyond the containment of austerity

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Scotland is resisting the attack on British welfare, but blocking policy can only do so much. Scotland needs an examination and restatement of its distinct civil society and institutions. This is the first piece in the ‘Restating Scotland’ debate series.

Amy Westwell Cailean Gallagher
3 April 2013

The Guardian claimed on Monday that the arrival of the Coalition’s welfare raft, cruel and dispassionate, heralded the day Britain changed. But although these are welfare changes intended to affect the UK uniformly, the reaction in Scotland is distinct.

On Saturday, thousands from 53 towns and cities across Britain marched against the bedroom tax. People in Glasgow held one of the largest rallies with some citing more than 3,000 marchers, to the surprise of many activists. But while the BBC presented Glasgow as leading the way in the British protest context, the speakers at the rally focussed on a united Scotland fighting an unjust policy, invoking the poll tax movement, as if this was a similar experiment on unwilling Scottish guinea pigs. Activists are looking to Scotland for solutions. 

At the Scottish Assembly for Tackling Poverty last week, the bedroom tax was placed in the context of the existing crisis of Scottish housing, and the approach being taken to those problems by the existing Scottish bodies – not least by the devolved Scottish Government, nominally responsible for housing.

From the perspective of Scottish policy makers and third sector organisations, such as Shelter Scotland and the SCVO, the bedroom tax is not simply one more cut to a reserved benefits system for which they must make amends however they can, but a change which encroaches clearly on Scottish social housing policy.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government argued publicly against the tax, both on its own ideological basis, and the basis that the tax does not have the intended effect in Scotland due to the nation’s particular social housing situation. It also funded awareness raising and training for social landlords, later providing money to social landlords to allow for effective advice and support for those affected. 

The public demanded that the Scottish Government go further by using their existing law-making powers to prevent social landlords from using rent arrears caused by the bedroom tax in eviction actions, and instead requiring the arrears to be pursued as an ordinary debt. The public’s request for legal changes demonstrates the readiness with which we consider Scottish statutory power as a buffer for Westminster. 

This use of Holyrood as a blocking apparatus is key to understanding the approach of welfare and public institutions in Scotland. The Scottish Government puts up the barricades, so that institutions like the NHS are not only ring-fenced but institutionally preserved. While this approach can help maintain universal access to services, the constant amends for real or potential Westminster threats to the status quo result in a stagnant institutional ideology that has scarce relation to Scotland’s democracy. So while Scotland’s distinct political, public and welfare institutions give it the potential to develop a divergent public welfare ideology, the containment mentality misses this opportunity.

Meanwhile, the welfare system is being changed irreversibly, in Scotland just as in England. While Scotland is slightly protected, we are yet to see the lasting and deep impact of austerity measures. Those working in, or representatives of the institutions impacted by welfare changes, foresee these changes. Their strategic response often focuses on data collection, knowing that better information on the expected impact of legislative changes on health, on women, on underemployed workers, will better enable them to help those in most need, and prevent complete collapse. In this way, they work out the priorities for Scotland’s remedial containment response. 

Yet through third-sector and government discussions, we find a distinct expression of Scottish institutional ideology. There is an assumption, mostly unexamined, of a basis in rights and in universalism. This is evidenced in the Scottish Government’s housing and children’s policies, which are largely rights-based, and the universalism is demonstrated in university access, free prescriptions, free bus-travel for pensioners, free personal care for the elderly.

When representatives of institutions gather, there is a broadening of debate. At this year’s Gathering, a third sector convention organised by SCVO, one session addressed concerns that the central place of human rights in welfare was being thwarted by Westminster. At a conference on women and the economy a consensus emerged that data itself needs underpinning with societal principles and values. At the Poverty Assembly, attitudes and sentiments were seen as a central problem that public institutions should challenge; while the Church of Scotland has developed work with the Poverty Alliance on how to target the stigmatisation of the poor. 

So there are differences between Scotland and the UK in the actions of Scottish government, public and welfare institutions, and differences in the ideology pursued by those institutions.  If the institutional and ideological patterns and traditions could be examined together, we would be closer to a restatement of Scotland’s public institutions. This would address reactive tendencies that make the branding of ‘conservative’ social democracy in Scotland so fitting. 

But why should we start our investigation of how to create change from the basis of the differences in institutional ideology between Scotland and the UK? We are often reminded that the Social Attitude Surveys show very little difference in attitudes to welfare and social justice in Scotland and England. Understood through the far-reaching lens of the social attitudes survey, Scotland seems no different at all. Yet there is a difference in policy and institutional activity in Scotland, divergent from the UK in spite of SAS indicators.

If we take the surveys to be accurate reflections of individual ideologies, we are drawn to examine political and institutional forms of ideology in Scotland that have created something different in Scotland and England, despite the same set of individual attitudes. The institutions need to be examined to understand this creation of ideological and political tradition, if we are to grasp and change it. The progress and history of institutions in Scotland may well be the crucial place to focus our reflection. This will complement work on understanding English or UK-wide institutions, key to developing new ideas for radicals in England working to resist the full might of changes in welfare ideology.

Another possibility is to assume that because the institutional and political differences exist between Scotland and England, the SAS must be a crude device to measure the ideology of a population; as would be any device that takes a population one by one and asks their individual opinion. Thus we are again led beyond individuals into civil society or the state –people acting in public or social roles– to Scottish government, public and welfare institutions.  Although welfare has been the focus of the discussion so far, it is clear that welfare operates within a whole containing all institutions that operate in Scotland, including those which are UK- and Europe-wide, as well as those with non-welfare-based public roles. 

The debate on Scottish constitutional change offers a chance to examine all this. Although some see independence itself as the great opportunity, there is more consensus on the idea that a reconsideration of state and constitution allows for a crucial examination and restatement of Scotland’s civil society and institutions. Thus the first two contributors to the Restating Scotland debate, both academics with an active role in political and institutional life in Scotland, see this respectively as an opportunity to examine welfare’s relation to human rights, and Scottish policy’s relation to women. 

Restating Scotland aims to create a space outside the realm of frantic constitutional deliberation, and that of panicked reaction to austerity measures.  There is more agreement than there might seem to be between those with different constitutional perspectives on the need for a restatement of welfare ideology, whether within the realm of devolution or an independent state.   

On all sides, of course, there are specific views of the relationship of the constitutional to the institutional question. Some think in terms of a British whole, and this needs to be articulated more clearly in Scotland. And those who are intrigued by independence believe that we can make a transition to a new Scottish state, at the heart of which is a new just welfare system. 

This opens another approach which we will explore, that considers Scotland from the basis of the constitutional discussion, looking to welfare and social justice from the perspective of the state and constitution – an approach that some bemoan as overshadowing proper welfare debate.  This approach assumes that the constitutional question is relevant and historically rational, so we should be examining and changing Scotland through an understanding of the Scottish state as a whole. A focus on principles and possibilities for Scottish welfare is a good place to start.

The second piece in the Restating Scotland debate will be published on Friday - "Scotland, citizenship and choice: the deep constitution", by James Mitchell.

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