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The referendum: which way for social justice in Scotland?

This opinion piece is almost 10 years old

Maggie Kelly is a freelance writer and policy and campaigns advisor who has worked in the third sector in Scotland and London for over 20 years. She is a member of Third Sector Yes.

As 18 September draws near and people debate the case for yes or no, for myself and many others the most important issue is whether we are likely to get a fairer, more socially just society under independence or with the status quo.

Currently, under the UK coalition government we are seeing our society rapidly changing, with social injustice on the rise everywhere we look. Coalition austerity policies and in particular their welfare reform programme have played a key role in this. Many people are being left without sufficient money to put food on the table or meet their essential bills, mothers are skipping meals to feed their children and disabled people are left prisoners in their own home. Foodbank numbers are rising as are cases of malnutrition. Developments most of us never thought to see in such a prosperous country. And there lies the injustice of it; it is not that we are all in this together increasing poverty has gone hand in hand with booming wealth for the very rich, with the gap between the rich and poor growing ever wider.

Over the last few years, many of us in the third sector, in grassroots campaigns, in faith groups, in trade unions and elsewhere have fought long and hard against the coalition’s social security cuts. People have produced an enormous body of evidence showing the harm which social security cuts are having. This has been systematically ignored by the coalition government. It is clear that they are bent on policy making based on ideology, not evidence - or indeed compassion. Sadly, Labour at Westminster has failed to mount any meaningful challenge to this, stating it will continue to maintain overall austerity and even keep the benefit cap. Significantly, it has also failed to offer a convincing alternative narrative to the coalition’s “strivers versus skivers” rhetoric. Though there are of course individual exceptions, collectively it has failed to defend those who need its support in an increasingly poisonous and hostile atmosphere.

Maggie Kelly
Maggie Kelly

Campaigners have also lobbied the SNP government to do everything it can to mitigate the impact of social security cuts in Scotland. It has taken some positive steps such as the decision to fund the costs of the bedroom tax and council tax benefit cuts so that individuals are protected. Undoubtedly, there is more that the Scottish Government could do to tackle poverty and inequality. But the bottom line is that welfare policy (bar some minor areas) is reserved to Westminster and as such there is only so much that can ever been done to mitigate the impact of such a huge, ongoing cuts programme. Meanwhile, the coalition has said they will introduce a further £25 billion worth of cuts, much of which will fall on social security, if re-elected. From this perspective, the future for social justice looks very bleak indeed under the status quo.

Taking a broader view, England, or rather the Westminster elites, have been moving further and further away politically from Scotland for a long time now. England is leaving Scotland rather than the other way around. Though Scotland has changed too, compared to Westminster, it has remained more committed to the social compact which all of the parties entered into in the post war period and which saw the creation of our social security system and our NHS. Our different approach to policy making and legislation in devolved areas of responsibility such as health and education, shows this clearly.

The bottom line is that welfare policy (bar some minor areas) is reserved to Westminster and as such there is only so much that can ever been done to mitigate the impact of such a huge, ongoing cuts programme

But although these political differences are important this is only part of the discussion. This vote will affect generations to come. So, what about the long run? Where will England and Scotland be in 40 years time? Perhaps England will elect a radical left/green government. It doesn’t look likely now but then current Coalition policies would have been unthinkable 40 years ago. I don’t think that as a nation we are inherently better at social justice than those who live a few miles south.

This is not a debate about narrow nationalism versus traditional right/ left politics.

Nor is it about the SNP white paper versus the policies of a (uncertain) future Westminster Labour government. We shall all have an opportunity to consider these kinds of issues at the next general election. And it is certainly not about more powers versus independence. Offers of future talks about some unspecified, additional powers (which the parties have yet to agree upon) in response to a poll showing that yes is ahead, are unconvincing to say the least. Especially given Westminster’s outright refusal to countenance a second question on greater devolution on the ballot paper. I think people can draw their own conclusions about the sincerity of these offers.

People know that there is only one issue in front of them on 18 September and that is whether to give power to the people of Scotland over their own affairs or leave those powers at Westminster. My view is that it is only with independence that we will get opportunity to pursue a fairer, more just society in Scotland. Of course, voting yes will not guarantee us a more socially just Scotland. Nobody can guarantee us the future. There are always risks. We have heard a lot about the risks of independence but the risks of leaving power with Westminster are even greater and we have the opportunity now to take a different path.

My view is that it is only with independence that we will get opportunity to pursue a fairer, more just society in Scotland

Despite strong feelings on both sides of the referendum campaign, in terms of their vision for a more socially just Scotland, there is a very often a broad consensus between members of both camps. The differences are often not about the vision or even how to get there, but about where powers should lie to best achieve that vision. It goes without saying that there is absolutely no such agreement on these issues in Westminster. In an independent Scotland, when the dust has settled, imagine what we could do for social justice with the kind of consensus which already exits.

In Scotland, we also already have a better, more democratic parliamentary system in place to enable us to work together to achieve these aims. In contrast, the archaic, anti-democratic House of Lords and the stultifying first past the post Westminster system will continue to thwart any progressive forces for social justice.

The fact that we are a smaller country is also a huge asset. My experience of engaging in policy and lobbying work both in London and Scotland is that the Scottish Parliament is already very much more accessible than Westminster. Independence would give us a hugely expanded opportunity to influence the decisions that affect us all. You are literally bringing decision making closer to home. Of course small states and well as big can lean politically towards centralization but despite this caveat, there is something fundamentally more accessible about a smaller state.

But to create a fairer society we need to do more than just replace one set of politicians with another (albeit more accessible) set of politicians who make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. Everywhere people have become profoundly disengaged with politics, yet In the midst of this disillusionment something amazing is happening In Scotland. People have become engaged. They feel hopeful that with independence we can make a change for the better. We are in the midst of proper democracy as if people actually mattered and this is what is needed if we want greater social justice. Creating a more equal and just society is as much about how we do politics as actual policies. Imagine what we could do with independence - we would have a unique opportunity to build on this momentum and work towards real participatory democracy. If we want a fairer, more socially just society we can make it happen ourselves. Independence is an historic opportunity to do just that and we should seize it now.

Maggie Kelly is the former coordinator of the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform, a civic society coalition campaigning for a fairer social security system. The views expressed here are entirely her own and do not reflect the views any organisations that she has worked with.



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almost 10 years ago
Persuasive stuff! Thanks Maggie, and TFN for airing it.
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Duncan MacLaren
almost 10 years ago
Maggie is spot on. My field is international development and fear that with Tory backbenchers and UKIP keen to slash or even end overseas aid, it could have serious consequences for anti-global poverty programmes. The No campaign is now engaged in exactly the same tactics used by right wingers in the US and Australia. Tell a lie often enough, collude with the mainstream media and people might believe it - forgetting that any victory based on deceit is pyrrhic. Thanks, Maggie. Duncan MacLaren
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Mark Bevan
almost 10 years ago
Yes, sadly. Distance from the consequences of punitive public policy (Welfare Reform) in terms of geography as well as social milieu insulates law makers from the fragile tendrils of democracy, which if distance were shorter would hold them accountable. Whilst there are working poor in England, they do live in a country which voted for the Government which they got. Scotland's people did not cast such a vote, didn't mandate such a Government as the one we have imposed upon us. But voting yes on Thursday offers more than this. It offers the prize of a written constitution, the binding of all future Governments to a set of principles which guide the law makers, a curb on their power. For those who think this fanciful or a restriction which people today put on the democratic wishes of future generations you are wrong. The Constitutional Court in Germany recently blocked a law which would have been punitive to the elderly. The law was popular with working Germans but blocked as being unconstitutional as it marginalised a disadvantaged group. Such a constitution would have had much to say about the Bedroom Tax. So if you want law and public policy to be made by people who you elect and you want there to be constraints on future Governments which require legislators to uphold values of equality and fairness and justice then be ambitious and vote yes on Thursday
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Maggie Kelly
almost 10 years ago
Many thanks for supportive feedback. If anyone would like to read some of my other blogs on the referendum. Please go to or you can tweet me on
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