Let’s keep the British welfare state, apparently

Painfully slowly, we creep closer to that moment when the SNP finally tell us what they mean by “independence”. A long heralded White Paper, scheduled for publication this autumn, carries the burden of an expectant nation.

For much of the year the noises coming out of the SNP, and their (wholly owned?) subsidiary Yes HQ, have been to the strangely Orwellian effect that in Nationalist Newspeak, “independence” means “dependence”. Keeping HM The Queen we’ve known about for a long time (fewer talk about keeping HRH The Scourge of Modern Architecture, or HRH The Pioneer of Holistic Medicine, to give him his Scottish title).

Keeping the pound is an altogether more serious business and, as explained in an earlier post, this will not happen without the sort of fiscal pact between iScot and rUK that would make the former effectively dependent on the latter. That dependence would not matter to the Nationalists, however, because we’d be independently dependent. We would have chosen, through our own independent judgement, to depend upon the central bank of a foreign power.

And now, we learn that, in addition to keeping the Queen and the pound, we may also keep the British welfare state. Such, at any rate, is the clear recommendation of the SNP’s, err, “independent” Expert Group on Welfare. (Whether this is really a dependent expert group I leave to others to judge.)

The Group’s principal findings are buried in paragraphs 4.76 and 4.80 of its report (pages 68 and 69). First, we learn that it is “difficult to suggest at this stage” how welfare could be delivered in an independent Scotland without an understanding of the “principles” that would “underpin” welfare provision in the new state. Well, yes: what matters is not the territorial issue of whether welfare provision is determined in Edinburgh or London, but the substantive issue of welfare policy. Few plans can sensibly be made as to HOW welfare will be managed in Scotland unless and until we first know WHAT that welfare provision will be. This is an echo of something I’ve been arguing for months: what we need in Scotland is not a sterile argument about what powers should be exercised where but a real argument about what policies we’d like to see pursued here. And what is the SNP’s policy on the welfare state? You guessed it: there ain’t one. They don’t know. They say they want [in]dependence, but they don’t know what they want it for. They say they want more powers, but they don’t know how they’d exercise them. Again and again we come back to first base: to what substantive question is “[in]dependence” the answer?

More importantly, however, we learn from the Expert Group that there would have to be an indefinite “transitional period” whilst an independent Scotland worked out what it wanted to do in terms of welfare provision. And, now, get this:

formalising the current arrangements into an agreed set of ‘shared services’ over such a transitional period appears to be not only a reasonable position but a natural conclusion. We also believe that it would be the most efficient and cost effective arrangement for both Governments.

That is, continuing with the British welfare state (“the current arrangements”) — continuing to enjoy shared services — is (1) reasonable, (2) the natural conclusion, (3) efficient and (4) the most cost effective arrangement for Scotland.

I could not agree more. But, of course, that is not an argument for independence. It’s an argument precisely against independence.