David Cameron raised the stakes in the independence debate last week by insisting that it would be “foolish” to abandon Trident in the Clyde when there is a growing threat from countries like North Korea. I’m not sure it was entirely wise to suggest that we might be on Kim’s target list. Are we to assume our Trident missiles are now potentially targeting Pyongyang?
Residents of Scotland’s largest conurbation might wonder if having weapons of mass destruction, which are illegal under international law, on our doorstep is a good idea if they are liable to attract the attentions of rogue nuclear states. Even the former Tory Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, said Cameron’s intervention was “absurd”. But the PM seems to believe that Trident is a key plank in the “positive” case for the union. A majority of Scots seem to disagree, according to opinion polls, and think that there are better things to spend £100bn on than a useless virility symbol.
David Cameron also believes that the Coalitions’s welfare reforms, that kick in this week, will bolster the Union by targeting scroungers and skivers who set fire to their children. But Scots do not seem over keen on weapons of social mass destruction like the bedroom tax, which is shaping up to be the poll tax of the 21st Century.
It is “a reckless social experiment” according to the Yes Scotland campaign who believe that the bedroom tax will help win the referendum for independence. Nicola Sturgeon has promised to reverse it in an independent Scotland. With Labour also attacking the tax there was a serious danger last week of cross-party unity breaking out in Scotland. Except of course for the poor Scottish Liberal Democrats who have been left twisting in the wind, defending the indefensible.
Could the bedroom tax galvanise the independence vote in the same way that the 1987 poll tax fuelled demand for the Scottish Parliament? The bedroom tax and its associated cuts have brought thousands onto the streets and the same coalition of charities, churches and trades unions seem to be lining up against the Tory welfare reforms. The bedroom tax – which of course isn’t really a tax but a deduction – is part of a constellation of welfare reforms which are being introduced by a Conservative-led government in Westminster which is simultaneously cutting taxes on the richest in society.
And this isn’t just the old few pounds we are talking about. Earners like Ian Marchant, the boss of Scottish and Southern Energy which was fined a record sum for “mis-selling” last week, will be in line for a £40,000 tax reduction on his reported £1m pay packet. Andy Hornby, the former chief executive of HBOS, also criticised last week in the strongest possible terms by a Commons report, will be in line for a similar cash back. Amusingly, Hornby is now chief executive of the bookmakers, Coral – a fitting destination for the former boss of a bank that had to be rescued with £20bn of public money after recklessly gambling with its shareholders funds.
What infuriated Scots was the perceived unfairness of the poll tax, and while the bedroom tax may not be on the same scale of infamy, it is incredibly damaging to introduce it at the same time as indiscriminately rewarding “wealth creators” such as the bankers who brought Britain to the brink of financial destruction. It is all about double standards. George Osborne may not be Margaret Thatcher, but he is doing as splendid job of inheriting her hand bag.
As with the poll tax, these measures are being introduced by a government led by a party which has been rejected at successive elections by the Scottish voters. Support for the Conservative Party in Scotland is as low, or lower, than it was in 1997 when they were wiped out at the general election. History may not be repeating itself, but there are pretty clear echoes of the 1980s. In fact, with the privatisation of health, the cutting (in real terms) of welfare benefits, and taxing bedrooms the Cameron Conservatives are going further than Margaret Thatcher dared.
Of course, times – and attitudes – change. We should beware assuming that Scots voters are more fond of welfare than English voters. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Service’s own survey recently concluded that “negative public attitudes towards benefits recipients is a major obstacle for charities”. A much-quoted Yougov survey last month suggested that eight out of ten Scots approve the £26,000 benefits cap, and think people who have been offered a job should take it rather than stay on benefits. But these are hard propositions to oppose, whatever your attitude to welfare. There are only a tiny handful of families – if any – in Scotland getting £26,000 in benefits.
Most Scots have no problems with stricter rules on entitlement to benefits for people with phoney disabilities. They don’t even object, in principle, to small families being urged to move out of large council houses. The problem with the bedroom tax is that it is a disguised cut in housing benefit. This is because there simply aren’t enough smaller houses to go round, so many people will have no alternative but to take a reduction in their benefits. Indeed, the bedroom tax could encourage precisely the kind of child benefit “farming” that led to the Philpott scandal. The more kids you have, the bigger the house.
The biggest shock this month will be the discovery that it is the working poor who are being hit hardest by many of the welfare changes. Benefits that are uprated by less than inflation – 1% – are being cut in real terms and a lot of those “hard working families”will find they no longer get tax credits and child benefits. This autumn will see the introduction of the Universal Benefit which is supposed to replace a raft of existing benefits and make for a simpler and cheaper system. But changes like these invariably create more losers than winners, and they tend to be a great deal more vocal.
Better Together will argue, of course, that this is nothing to do with them, and nothing to do with the Union. You can’t blame the UK for George Osborne. Nor is there any guarantee that an independent Scottish government would have been any more willing or able to discipline HBOS or RBS. However, it is equally the case that the policies being pursued by successive governments in Westminster have caused a profound sense of moral unease north of the border. Labour, after all, were ultimately responsible for the credit bubble that blew up in 2008 with disastrous consequences. It was Tony Blair who launched the war on welfare as well as the war in Iraq. The renewal of Trident is a cross party decision in Westminster taken in the teeth of opposition from Scotland.
These may not be the issues that decide the referendum. But it puts increased pressure on those who support the union to show that it is possible to reject Trident and Tory tax policies without breaking up Britain.