For some time, the Scottish National Party has been edging towards a distinctive position on welfare reform. Scottish nationalism is based not only on a claim to self-determination, but an assertion of a culture and set of values that sets Scotland apart from the rest of the United Kingdom. (There’s a comment on the trend in a blog from the Rowntree Foundation.) This week, Alex Salmond took the argument further in a lecture to the Jimmy Reid Foundation. Jimmy Reid, Salmond argued, “was proud of Scotland’s tradition of compassion, egalitarianism and empathy. He spoke out whenever that tradition was abandoned and betrayed. It is being betrayed at present.”
John Curtice has expressed some scepticism about whether an appeal to collective social values can sway the campaign for independence. He’s been quoted as saying: “What the Yes campaign needs to do is to persuade Scots they will have £400 more in their own pocket, not £400 in their poorer neighbour’s pocket.” (That doesn’t sound like John, actually, but I’ll let that pass.) This may well be right, but I’d like to think the tendency can be overcome. On one hand, many people express strong, passionate views about many issues that don’t visibly or directly affect them – gay marriage, abortion, tax avoidance and MP’s expenses among them. On the other, the issues that shape responses to benefits are are not impersonally altruistic. Welfare reform, unemployment and disability affect people in tens and hundreds of thousands – there can be few people who have no relatives, friends or acquaintances affected. The question for the SNP is not just whether they can have to appeal to people’s self-interest, but whether they can construct a convincing narrative where shared values are translated into support for self-determination.
Part of the problem in doing that is that the SNP’s position to date has mainly been reactive. “Make no mistake”, Salmond says. “What we are doing at present is mitigation – nothing more.” If the SNP wants to establish a distinctive policy on benefits, it needs to identify a model that is about more than restoring benefit cuts; and it cannot do that without committing itself to spending much more money.