Scottish Independence: Welfare Debate Going Nowhere

Last night’s televised debate between Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Anas Sarwar of Labour was as predictable as it was depressing. It was hard to concentrate on the substance of what was being said because they were persistently talking over each other, but a review of some excerpts this morning reveals that there was nothing new on offer from either side.

Social protection – pensions, disability/sickness/unemployment benefits, personal care, etc. – accounts for around 40% of government spending and represents a substantial chunk of our economy, which means it has a huge impact on all of our lives as taxpayers and recipients.

The majority of this spending goes to elderly people, whose numbers are rising across the UK. We’ve been hearing for years that the trend towards an elderly population is accelerating and that our current methods of funding the welfare payments on which they rely are unsustainable. Tinkering around the edges of the current welfare system is never going to fill the gap.

Unless we find a plausible alternative to tax, borrow and spend we will soon find it impossible to pay for the care and comfort of the people in our communities who are unable to pay for it themselves. This is a huge challenge for our political leaders but neither Nicola or Anas offered one single glimmer of anything that could be described as an idea for addressing it.

Their debate remained stuck within the unsustainable confines of the current system. The chasm between costs and revenues that’s opening up before us was met with empty rhetoric along the lines of “We will make tough choices for the people of Scotland..” and “We will tackle pensioner poverty across the UK…”

How, Nicola? How, Anas? The way we do it at the moment will not work in the future. The sums will not add up.

Scottish independence represents a massive opportunity to change the way that we do things, to get rid of things that don’t work and replace them with things that do. But were getting nothing new from the mainstream “Yes” camp. Nothing that will solve the problems of welfare funding or the ever-rising tide of debt that will swamp our economy at some point in the not too distant future.

You would think that the mainstream “No” camp would recognise the need to fix these problems as well. They will clobber the whole of the UK, not just Scotland. But UK politics rolls along as usual, getting excited about the little things that make big headlines (benefits fraud, bankers bonuses, immigration), ignoring the big stuff that requires serious thought and radical reform.

The tragedy is that there are lots of good ideas out there for tackling these big issues but the mainstream – politics and media – are too busy, too lazy, too afraid to explore anything radical. When we ask the hard questions we end up with meaningless, puerile shouting matches like last night’s so-called debate.

My own book incorporates what I believe to be some of the best answers to these hard questions but there are lots of other ideas out there which are equally worth exploring. Independence or not, we can and must do better than the status quo.

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