Scottish Independence and the Imaginings of Welfare Futures – and Welfare Pasts!

Published: 25 March 2015

Gerry Mooney of The Open University, discusses how social welfare is playing a key role in the imaginings and visions of what an Independent Scotland would be like.

The debate around Scotland’s constitutional status and future has rarely been in isolation from controversies and arguments around the shape and future trajectory of social welfare – both in a Scottish but also a UK wide context. Broadly defined and understood, arguably social welfare issues were part of the demand for devolution in the 1970s, at the time expressed in relation to concerns over rising unemployment and stagnating wages in Scotland. With the establishment of devolution in 1999, the reconvened Scottish Parliament was largely a social policy-making institution, the key policy areas over which it had jurisdiction being in social welfare including health, education, housing and social services. And when we reflect on the Independence Referendum of 2014 and the longer debate around Scottish Independence, we can see only too well that social welfare has been entangled with demands for ‘more devolution’ or for full Independence.

However, questions of social welfare do not play a role simply in relation to the furore over which additional powers could or should be devolved. Perhaps more significantly, social welfare is playing a key role in the imaginings and visions of what an Independent Scotland would be like. Of course such visions are themselves hotly contested but once again we do not have far to look to find the mobilisation of social welfare in these future imaginings.

In no small part these revolve around claims as to what a Scottish nation state, or just state, would ‘look like’. If the idea of Independence can be a somewhat abstract notion, then arguably the notion of a Scottish state is even more so. It is of course not new to see questions of the state reduced to arguments about state provision of services and the various institutions that form the architecture of that state. Within this context questions of social welfare come to play a particularly significant role: in the Independence debate social welfare was mobilised by the YES camp as a way of both differentiating what is happening in Scotland that is different – not least in relation to health and education – if not benefits which remain overwhelmingly under the control of the UK Government in Westminster  - and to envision what a future Scottish society, an Independent Scottish society could potentially ‘look like’! This would be, it is argued, a uniquely ‘Scottish’ welfare system founded on principles of social justice, egalitarianism and fairness, in sharp contrast with the popular punitivism of Westminster. In this respect such a system would reflect not only long held ‘distinctively Scottish’ values, attitudes and aspirations but would also signal that an Independent Scotland would be a society driven by a good and benign Scottish state to meet social justice goals. While there is much to question and criticise in such claims, not least the long-held myths of a uniquely Scottish set of values and attitudes, their political potency should not be underestimated.

Such myths, and the ways in which they are invoked in a wide range of popular stories that we tell ourselves about Scottish society, play to wider narratives of Scotland as a national community. They are a crucial part of a national political project to remake Scottish society in a particular way that marries together a vision of economic competitiveness linked with universal benefits. Imagining the future Scotland comes therefore to be represented and understood as being built upon statist and welfarist ideas of the good (Scottish) society. But, and here I am reminded of Tom Nairn’s argument about the ‘Janus face of nationalism’ - simultaneously looking backwards and forwards in ‘a nationalist double time’ – the vision of a welfarist future is also a nostalgic vision of a welfare past; a pre-1979, pre-Thatcherite golden era in which the ‘classic’ UK welfare state was built on fairness, universalism and social democracy. The romanticisation of a welfare system that never was transcends both sides in the Scottish Independence debate, but it also seriously limits the vision of the kind of society Scotland could become.

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