The politics of welfare will be central to the independence referendum campaign

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By Tom Montgomery

When the SNP announced the launch of its ‘yes’ campaign for independence in Inverness the challenge was put to the unionist parties to construct and articulate a convincing argument to keep Scotland in the UK.

The keynote speech by Alex Salmond touched on a variety of issues from energy policy to education that, following the political tsunami in May, will inspire huge confidence within the ranks of SNP activists preparing to canvass for a ‘yes’ vote in the forthcoming referendum.

The contrast with the unionist parties, still licking their wounds at Holyrood and polarised at Westminster, seems sharper than ever.  Nevertheless these parties will already be focused on finding policy areas around which they can coalesce and it is the politics of welfare that offers the most convenient common ground.

Few Labour politicians or activists will have become involved in Scottish politics to stand on a platform with Tories to wave a union jack and their leadership would be remiss to ignore this reality.  Instead the stirring of uncertainty about the future of unemployment and disability benefits, along with tax credits, offers a comfort zone for Labour politicians and their activists in the ‘no’ campaign without risking a clash with their Tory and Lib Dem partners.  

The focus on this issue not only accommodates the negative campaigning tactics consistently employed by the unionist parties in Scotland, it also reflects the current power balance within the leading unionist party.

As the Labour party at Holyrood continues its search for a leader after a disastrous Scottish Parliamentary campaign, Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster will point to the subsequent Inverclyde by-election victory as evidence that the ‘no’ campaign in this referendum should focus on ‘Westminster’ issues such as welfare.  Therefore provoking uncertainty about welfare may appear an attractive policy area for the unionist parties to join forces.

However this strategy also poses significant risks to the unionists, not by the accentuation of division between their individual party policies, but by the exposure of its absence.  

The Tory-Lib Dem coalition welfare policy agenda has sparked concerns in some quarters of a return to the types of right-wing approaches inspired by US theorist Lawrence Mead that emphasises ‘workfare’ and enables a distinction to be made between the deserving and undeserving poor.  

However this ideology, embraced by Thatcher and Major, did not disappear during the Blair or Brown governments.  Indeed the genesis of many of the welfare reforms being pursued by the Tory-led coalition at Westminster can be found in the policies of the previous Labour government.

It is perhaps with this in mind that in his speech Alex Salmond emphasised the centrality of a ‘social conscience’ when pursuing the interests of ‘the common weal’.  This projects the type of Scotland that the SNP believes independence can bring.  However, to counter the fears and uncertainty that unionist parties will articulate, the SNP ‘yes’ campaigners would do well to point to their own government’s decisions such as the ending of the ‘right to buy’ policy for council housing and the determination to keep the markets out of the NHS as an indication of the social policy an independent Scotland will pursue.

It is the politics of welfare that can often have the greatest resonance with the day to day lives of the public.  Those who can best articulate a position on welfare that connects with the majority of Scots, particularly in times of economic turmoil, may already be streets ahead in this referendum campaign.