Robin McAlpine | Director | Jimmy Reid Foundation
What is the meaning of continuity when you’re in flux? The battle for “Monarchs and Bombs” continuity being fought by both the Yes and No sides of the constitutional debate is as predictable as it is dispiriting. Predictable because modern politics turns conservative whenever it finds itself in new territory. Dispiriting because it is polluting that new territory with the detritus of the old.
But where do you turn when continuity itself offers no continuity? Britain experienced a collective bout of phantom limb syndrome during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games as we watched organised workers and dancing nurses, the sense of still feeling strongly about something that is barely there anymore.
The post-war welfare state is one of the greatest expressions of civilisation ever achieved. The creation of security and solidarity from the cradle to the grave is a project of unparalleled humanity.
Britain is rightly proud of this achievement. But Greece is rightly proud of the Parthenon, and in both cases the pride is invested in a time that has passed. In England the NHS as originally conceived is now at an end. The requirement for the UK government to ensure high-quality health care for all outside the market has gone. Welfare and benefits are recast almost completely as a safety net, not as a tool of social cohesion. The philosophy of the post-war settlement is broken south of the border.
In Scotland the situation is a bit different. The Scottish Parliament – under both pro-union and pro-independence administrations – has defended the core purpose of the NHS and sought to make a stand on the Universalist principle which underpins the idea of the welfare state.
This creates a difficult position for unionist parties that support the welfare state but have not proposed further devolution of social security policy. It will do no good for Labour simply to praise the idea of the NHS within a British political system which seems bent on its destruction. Will it make a clear statement of how it would restore the welfare state if it regained power? For now it seems to want us to believe it is still 1969 and all is well.
Alternatively, can it live with a properly federal Britain in which Scotland has the capacity to express a different social contract through an integrated tax-and-welfare policy? We would need a substantial devolution of both social security powers and tax-raising. And we would need to accept the risk of cross-border welfare refugees. What the No Campaign cannot do is simply talk about the NHS as if a British welfare state is currently an option. It isn’t.
The Yes Campaign has it easier because it doesn’t need to make a case on the show of welfare policy. But it has certainly not yet taken the fight to the No Campaign with an inspiring vision for the nature of the social contract in an independent Scotland. And the risk is that for some reason it doesn’t think it needs to, that a long process of saying “hush hush, everything is going to be fine” as if what we have is enough. If the main players in Scotland have concluded that preventing the worst of the decline in the welfare state is the end point for our aspirations, they need to think again.
The issue of the role of society from the cradle to the grave is important to the independence debate. Bluntly, it is a major fault line across the UK with polls suggesting that the south of England is really quite happy with benefit-bashing. Unlike the lazy conservatism of monarchy and military, continuity isn’t an option because the post-war welfare state is in the late stages of decline. So what does anyone have to say about it? Neither dancing nurses nor ostrich heads in the sand will do.
What do you think? Share your comments below