By John McAllion
I reach retirement age this month and so qualify for my British state pension. Like the rest of my baby boomer generation, I was born into a post-war British state that transformed the lives of working people.
I was only 4 months old when a welfare state free at the point of delivery and offering health and social protection from cradle to grave was enacted by a British Parliament. Thanks to the British state my generation of working class kids was the first ever to have access to free education all the way form primary school to university.
The same state protected our trade union rights, extended public ownership and narrowed the huge gap between rich and poor that had so disfigured pre-war Britain. Laws relating to capital punishment, race, divorce and sexuality were steadily liberalised.
I left school at 18 and entered a labour market not far short of full employment. Living standards were on the rise. Workers were better housed, better dressed, better educated and had more money to spend than ever before. A working class Brit back then really was something to be.
Why then do I now support a Yes vote in the independence referendum when I know that vote will break up the Britain that gave so much to my generation?
One simple answer to that question is that the state I live in today is no longer the same Britain. A more complicated answer is that it can never be that Britain again.
On every front, pensioners in Britain are under attack from Government and Opposition alike. The Coalition propose a new flat rate pension for everyone retiring after 2017, worth £144 a week in today’s prices, that will create two classes of pensioners for the first time since the pension was introduced in 1908.
Today’s pensioners will not get the new pension and will continue to receive a below subsistence level state pension that is one of the worst in Europe for the rest of their lives. They will go being means tested until they die. Around five million of them – mainly women – will go on receiving substantially less than £144 a week for as long as they live.
Tomorrow’s pensioners will be no better off. They will have to work longer with the state pension age currently set to increase to 67 – an upper limit that will be reviewed upwards every five years into the future. They will now need 35 rather than 30 years of National Insurance Contributions before qualifying for a full pension.
Even then their flat rate pension will be worth less than the means tested minimum income guarantee pension, especially so with loss of entitlement to housing and council tax benefit. Meanwhile the Labour Opposition in Holyrood rubbish a “something for nothing” Scotland and the very idea of benefits universally available to every citizen. They threaten a massive expansion of means testing and offer for the future only a slightly less spartan version of the Coalition’s austerity programme.
Invitations to speak at a recent National Pensioners Convention lobby in support of universal benefits like the bus pass and winter fuel allowances were declined by both Government ministers and the Labour Treasury team alike at Westminster. In the Britain of tomorrow there will be no place for the principle of universality that was the foundation stone of the welfare state that I was born into in 1948.
Both in Westminster and in devolved Holyrood there is all party retreat from the idea that the state should look after the health and social care needs of its older citizens. Under the banner of reforming care for the elderly, the private and voluntary sectors are taking over the role previously performed by the NHS and Social Work Departments.
No British party is suggesting that these non-state bodies should pay their workers a living wage. To do so would defeat their end of spending less on services for older people in the future. The post-war British state died a generation ago. Since then we have had Tory, New Labour and now Coalition Governments that embrace neoliberalism, militarism and neo-colonialism.
The Britain of the future can only be that kind of country. Breaking that Britain and starting again in a new Scotland is our only real hope.
John McAllion is a former Labour MP and now member of the Scottish Socialist party.