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Kirstein Rummery: Would an Independent Scotland be a Fairer Nation?

Would the vision of an independent Scotland as described in the White Paper Scotland’s Future be a fairer nation? The White Paper sets out some interesting commitments but leaves some important questions unanswered.

1. “With independence we can make Scotland the fairer and more successful country we know it can be” (preamble). “Independence will provide the opportunity to create a fairer, more equal society built around the needs of citizens” (p.134). The evidence suggests that small, economically strong states with fair welfare regimes and more equal and far societies (particularly Norway, Denmark and other Nordic states) have both the principles of equity and fairness built into the constitution, and the mechanisms for delivering that equity and fairness. There is a commitment on p. 153 that “Social rights embedded in a constitution will put questions of social justice at the forefront of the work of Scotland’s Parliament.” However, there are few details of how a constitution could be worked out that, for example, guaranteed women’s equal representation in all areas of public life (not just boards – political and civil life), or gave guaranteed access to social rights (for example a citizen’s income, right to access care services, etc) A commitment to enshrine the principles of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in the constitution would be substantial and effective. However, the White Paper does recognise some of the important policy issues concerning inequality that it promises to address.

2. There is recognition that current welfare reforms being imposed on Scotland have a disproportionately unfair effect on some sections of society, particularly women. P.155 states “the Scottish government’s recent analysis concludes that women will also lose out because of how the universal credit system in particular is structured”. P.159 sets out immediate priorities such as “restoring the ability of claimants to receive individual support rather than single household payments....benefitting 880,000 individuals, many of them women....and  equalise the earnings disregard between first and second earners...which will be of particular benefit to women”. It is important to recognise that women’s economic independence plays a vital part in achieving equality, and this is not just through women’s participation in paid work, but also that their roles as parents and carers should be recognised and valued. The White Paper does not offer any options that would do this, for example, a citizen’s basic income, or tax credits for non-working parents and carers. 

3. At P. 192, there is an important recognition that “Extensive provision of early learning and childcare is a hallmark of some of the most advanced and successful countries today...” and, at p. 193 the statement, that “independence ....will...substantially bolster the financial case for a transformational change in childcare provision.” There is a commitment to investing in a “universal system of high quality early learning and childcare “ which includes moving towards 1,140 hrs of childcare. That will require capital investment and creating 35,000 new jobs. Moreover, p. 194 recognises that Scottish parents pay 27% of their household income on childcare as compared to the 12% average in OECD countries and that therefore “independence will give us the opportunity to invest more in the supply of services rather than subsidising demand”. This is a commitment to an infrastructure that research indicates will result in better outcomes for children and working parents, create jobs, create wealth that is spent in the local economy, address child poverty and lead to improved educational attainment. But the model proposed is still based on one parent working part-time (school hours) so, unless there is wrap-around childcare as well, then working parents, particularly women, will be stuck in part-time work with lower wages and fewer prospects for career development. 

4. Looking at wider welfare issues and fairness, the commitment to abolishing welfare reforms that have been imposed from Westminster and are divisive and unfair are to be welcomed. For example to abolish the bedroom tax, halt the further rollout of universal credit and personal independent payments, and increase benefits and tax credits in line with inflation. It is clear that decisions about public spending priorities need to be made in Scotland to reflect Scottish priorities, values and needs and that public service reform that delivers outcomes that matter to the people of Scotland. A commitment to creating a constitution and a welfare system built on the principles of social justice is important. Again, drawing on research evidence from ‘fairer’, wealthy societies, their welfare systems are based on universal entitlements based on citizenship rights and a commitment to fairness. Independence alone will, therefore, not be enough if the constitutional and governance framework which underpins an independent nation is not built on these principles and actions. 

5. But, would an independent Scotland make policy decisions that would result in a fairer nation? Some of the post-1999 changes indicate that it would. Free personal care, free prescriptions, a commitment to no university fees, governance mechanisms like the Equalities and Budgetary Advisory group, domestic violence policy, and a commitment to end homelessness all indicate that Scotland has the will and the capacity to create a fairer society. But Scotland is still a very divided society. The gap between the richest and poorest sections of society are very wide. 15% of Scots are living in relative poverty, and the ratio of income in the UK of the Richest 10% compared to the poorest 10% is 13.8, as compared to 6.1 in Norway. We know that health inequalities and the gender wage gap are very high. Future policy decisions in an independent Scotland could be made by political parties which are not committed to social justice, fairness and equality.

6. The White Paper does, therefore, create some of the conditions necessary to achieve a fairer nation, but these on their own will not be sufficient. Fairness is, therefore, more likely to be achieved under independence, but it is not guaranteed. It will depend heavily on a constitutional framework that embeds principles and actions to guarantee social justice. There are few concrete guarantees that all sections of Scottish society will be involved in the drawing up of the constitution and the governance framework that will follow (e.g. a commitment to gender quotas etc). 

Kirstein Rummery is a Professor in the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Stirling

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