Don’t make mistake of thinking independence vote is yes or no to social justice

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In this, one of two guest blogs outlining why a Yes or No vote is in the best interest of ending child poverty in Scotland, Jim Gallagher, a contributing author to Poverty in Scotland 2014: the independence referendum and beyond, makes the case for the No campaign.

As the referendum moves towards a climax, more and more discussion is about what it might mean for social justice. We should welcome that. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the society we are, and what we want. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the vote is yes or no to social justice. It's yes or no to creating a separate Scottish state.

Every teacher has the student who answers the question he wishes was on the exam paper, because he knows the answer to that one. And many, probably most, voters would answer yes to greater social justice. But they are being asked about independence. So what would it actually mean for social justice?

The UK has big problems of inequality, worsening at a time of austerity. Governments can alleviate inequality, if they have the resources and the will. The 1997 Labour government took substantial proportions of pensioners and many children out of absolute and relative poverty. It cost many, many billions.

Things have worsened since then, as austerity bites, though not all of the gains have been lost, particularly for older folk. Nevertheless austerity hurts, and it hurts those who depend on public services and benefits the most.

One of the deceptions of the SNP campaign – I’m sorry to have to be so blunt– is to pretend independence will somehow end austerity. The opposite is true.

An independent Scotland would be in a worse fiscal state than the UK today. In 2016-17 our deficit would be £500 a head higher than the UK's. The Institute for Fiscal Studies - as objective as you can get - predicts additional cuts of £6bn a year, 10% of all benefits and spending, just to get into the same place as the UK. And don’t swallow the hype about oil revenues coming to the rescue. If we stay in the UK these risks are shared, but independence means not an end to austerity, but austerity plus: and it’s the poor on whom it would impact most.

Would a Scottish government have the will to redistribute to the poor? Maybe. But look at what the SNP do, not what they say. In government, they have pursued not a single redistributive policy. Not one. Nor is there a single one in their White Paper, though there’s room for tax cuts for business.

So I get distressed when I see yes campaigners–idealists, or cynical politicians– try to persuade people that independence is a yellow brick road to social justice. It's not.

You can argue independence is worth it, whatever the consequences, because we’d be in charge of our own destiny. Most people don’t swallow that. They want to know: would they be richer? Would the country be fairer?

Of course it’s hard to be completely sure – but if your priority is a better deal for those who depend most on welfare and public services, you need to know they are most at risk. If Scotland is driven from austerity today to austerity plus tomorrow, it’s not industrialists in their Monaco tax havens, nor even the comfortable middle class, but the poor who would pay the price.

Jim Gallagher was director-general for devolution in the UK government, senior adviser to the Prime Minister on devolution strategy (2007-2010) and secretary of the Calman Commission. Jim is currently a fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford and a visiting professor of government at Glasgow University. He wrote ‘Poverty and the case for the union’ in Poverty in Scotland 2014: the independence referendum and beyond published by CPAG.

Read Cailean Gallagher's blog making the case for the Yes campaign here.

John Dickie, Director of CPAG in Scotland, has also written a blog highlighting how CPAG has informed the terms of debate and argues that the challenge now for anti-poverty campaigners is to ensure that heightened public engagement and concern with child poverty in campaign debates is harnessed for real change, wherever powers end up lying after September 18th.


Poverty in Scotland 2014 is published in association with The Open University in Scotland, Glasgow Caledonian University and the Poverty Alliance, with contributions from academics, policy experts and campaigners. Both arguments are set out in an anti-poverty context by leading advocates of the Yes and Better Together campaigns, as well as covering perspectives from Europe and beyond. It also looks to the future in setting out principles for a more equitable Scotland – whatever the outcome of the referendum.