Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Northern light?

Beware the SNP’s false promise of social democracy, argues Gordon Brown

Progressives looking to an independent Scotland as the standard-bearer in the global fight against inequality will be sorely disappointed upon a closer inspection of the facts.

One of the propaganda devices of the Scottish National party has been to persuade left-of-centre opinion that breaking free from London rule would create a ‘northern light’ for social justice – a Scotland that is more just, more humane and more socially democratic. However, a Scotland which followed the policies outlined in the SNP’s white paper for independence and ended the system of pooling and sharing resources across the United Kingdom would quickly find that income and wealth would be more unequally distributed than in the country they abandoned.

It may seem paradoxical but the Scottish people’s much-vaunted egalitarian instincts are not reflected in the SNP’s prospectus for a separate state. Myth or reality, Scotland has always prided itself on both its democratic intellect – equalising opportunities in education – and its role as a pioneer of a civic society built on the idea that if the strong help the weak, we all become stronger. And although recent surveys have found Scottish and English opinion similar in their support for the NHS and for help for the unemployed – the difference lying only in a greater Scottish dislike of privatisation and private education – the idea of a socially concerned Scotland is a powerful one that influences how we act.

But the SNP’s plans for an independent state do not reflect that social egalitarianism. Its tax policies will astonish all those used to hearing its claim that, from the day after independence, it would recreate the social democratic state that London has left behind. The SNP has refused to commit an independent Scotland to Labour’s proposal for a 50p top rate of tax. It has also refused to support a new top band of council tax. And while it has announced reforms of stamp duty, it has not as yet included in them a ‘mansion tax’ for the most expensive house sales. It does not even support Ed Balls’ tax on bankers’ bonuses from which Labour proposes to raise £2bn – £200m for Scotland – despite the same concentration of wealth at the top of Scotland’s finance and banking industries as there is in the rest of the UK. With no measures at all to reduce income or wealth inequality, and with no corresponding transfer of income or wealth proposed for poorer Scots, inequality would not fall in the SNP’s independent state.

Nor does its social policy regime match the lofty claims for a new egalitarianism, with the SNP favouring a crude universalism as opposed to a progressive universalism which starts from a floor of basic social rights but gives more to those most in need.

In an ideal world we would want higher universal benefits and better needs-based support. But the SNP’s policy is to emphasise giving virtually the same to everyone regardless of their level of need or the poverty they start from – and almost £1bn of the Scottish parliament’s budget is spent on an extension of universal benefits (including free prescriptions, concessionary travel and free tuition) with less available for the poorest. In the case of tuition fees, the SNP has replaced some of the grants given to the poorest students with extra loans at higher interest rates, meaning that low-income students will graduate with higher debts whereas students from more affluent backgrounds – who receive free tuition and do not need to borrow – are likely to graduate with little debt, if any at all.

What is more, the SNP’s long-term freeze on council tax gives most help to those on upper incomes. But perhaps the biggest signal of where the SNP really stands on progressive taxation is its planned three per cent corporation tax cut with no countervailing measure to replace the funds lost from public services. The gist is clear: the main beneficiaries of the corporation tax cut would be the already-enriched utility companies, for whom independence would offer a triple bonus: a multimillion pound tax cut; an easy escape from Ed Miliband’s planned price freeze; and the end of the obligation on utilities to fund measures to reduce fuel poverty and to increase energy efficiency.

To criticise SNP plans is not to overlook the flaws of coalition policy. No one can defend the ‘bedroom tax’ and the below-inflation rises in social security benefits that are pushing children and already-poor families towards foodbanks, payday loans and loan sharks. As a result the union will not be a caring union for millions of pensioners and families as long as the Conservative-led coalition is in power. Nonetheless, in five years the Conservatives have been unable to smash the basis of the sharing union which has been built up across the UK over 100 years.

Yet the first casualties of independence would be this UK-wide system of pooling and sharing risks and resources to help those most in need and the UK-wide system of national insurance and taxation that funds an NHS for all citizens of the UK irrespective of nationality. People often forget that the citizens of our four nations are guaranteed not just equal civil and political rights but also equal social and economic rights: the same rights to pensions, unemployment benefit and help if they are sick, disabled or poor. No other group of nations has such a sophisticated system of guaranteeing rights to people across national boundaries based on need rather than on nationality. The benefits are clear: whereas 25 per cent of America’s poor are taken out of poverty by their welfare system – and around 25 per cent in Canada and Australia, too – between 55 per cent and 60 per cent of the poor of each nation of the UK are released from poverty.

Between 1997 and 2011 the level of pensioner poverty in Scotland fell from 33 per cent to 11 per cent, a reduction that took 200,000 Scots (and two million British) older people out of poverty. This would not have been possible without a transfer of income across the UK to those in greatest need.

Other multinational associations such as the European Union have found that the citizens of one nation, such as Germany, are not willing to transfer resources on a similar scale to the citizens of another nation, such as Greece. In the United States, common welfare and health provision is so inadequate that the typical citizen of the poorest state, Mississippi, has just 50 per cent of the income of their counterpart in the richest state, Delaware. Yet the average income per head in Scotland and England is roughly the same. That is why, while continuing to advocate improvements, progressives should think twice about breaking a system which, for all its faults and for all its current inadequacies, has redistributed substantial amounts of income and wealth across the UK.

More can be done in the years to come to build on the decision to pool and share our risks and resources – and Ed Miliband has recently made new proposals for reform – but to end the current system of sharing and to start afresh on a dubious SNP prospectus for separation would be a historic and irreversible step backwards for progressives everywhere.

The pooling and sharing which gives progressive purpose to the UK shows where the real issue of the referendum lies. The difference between the two visions of Scotland’s future on offer on 18 September is not about whether Scotland is a nation: Scotland always has been a nation and will remain so whatever the vote. The issue is not whether Scotland has its own institutions: for three centuries since the union Scotland has retained its distinctive church, law and education system. The issue is whether we wish to break all political links with our friends and neighbours in the rest of the UK.

Our vision is of a Scotland proud of its identity with a powerful Scottish parliament that remains part of the progressive system of pooling and sharing risks, rewards and resources across the UK. The nationalist vision is for a Scottish parliament that breaks forever all constitutional links with the rest of the UK. It would make Scotland not more equal but less so.


Gordon Brown MP is a former prime minister. He is author of My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing


Photo: World Economic Forum

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Gordon Brown MP

is a former prime minister


  • I don’t know much about most of what he discusses, but i do know that students in Scotland, including those from a poorer background (of which i was one), get a great deal at the moment. Student loans interest is the same as the rate of inflation so doesn’t actually increase in real terms. Plus those who earn less than £16,910 a year don’t need to begin repayments, and if their low economic situation continues the loan is eventually cancelled. A student loan is literally the best loan you are ever going to get, and for those earning just over the threshold for repayments, it makes financial sense to view it as a wee education tax rather than something you should repay. So, students in Scotland have a pretty good deal at the moment and in the immediate aftermath of Independence. I do love Gordon Brown though and have a great amount of respect for the man, he certainly is a man of integrity, so i’ll be looking into the rest of what he says.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with this unpicking of the SNP`s claims of social justice. What is socially just about well paid Scottish people getting free prescriptions and people living in mansions having no raise in their council tax? The SNP are unable to get rid of their tartan Tory badge, and the nasty bigotted side of the party is coming to the fore now too with rabble rousing started by Alex Salmond – they don`t like reasonable debate as they have no answers to questions they should have answers to.
    Keep up the good work Gordon!

  • Gordon, you’ve already lied oil revenues and about blood/organ transplants trying to scare ill people into voting no (ironic considering the state the NHS will be in).
    So, if you can lie about such important issues why would we believe anything you say? Makes me wonder if you are waiting for a seat in House of Lords and are just towing the party line regardless

    On another matter, in the above article you say no one can defend the bedroom tax, but did you vote against it in the commons??? No you didn’t Gordon, you had the chance but neither you nor Jim Murphy could be bothered showing up that day and that statement makes you a hypocrite

  • This is a man that deregulated the banking system and caused the biggest financial crash since 1930. He raided the pensions of £118 Billion. He ANNOUNCED that he was selling the gold at an all time low. This hypocrite would rather have Scotland ruled by Tories than the Scottish people. He is worried that if Scotland leaves the UK debt, that debt, that he built up, implodes upon England if Scotland leaves. All he cares about is putting off a financial collapse and he would sacrifice anyone and anything to prevent that falling on his shoulders. He is not only a disgrace to Scotland, but the rest of the UK

  • Why don`t you address the issues raised in the article? – that is that the SNP cannot claim any social justice credentials – they have not reduced inequalities in this country and have no intention to do so.

  • Yes, you can’t do much when your hands are tied and you have a tax system called UK Gov…. Simples

  • As far as I am aware the SNP government could raise tax by 3p but have chosen not to -I wonder why not – perhaps because it wouldn`t be a populist policy??

  • Do you think we are better with Politicians like Gordon Brown and ones that have created Poverty and Social Injustice which is only growing?

    or a What is it with the No Thanks. No thanks to free education,
    No Thanks to a Living Wage. No thanks to tackling poverty and our elderly dying
    of fuel poverty, No thanks to using the country’s wealth for Social good and
    not out Trillion Dollar War Machine, No Thanks, we want to pay billions for a
    High Speed link not anywhere Scotland and Sewers Under London etc, No thanks to spending millions on the unelected House of Lords, No thanks to the millions
    spent on champagne for our Westminster Masters, No Thanks we want another £60Billion to the poor, needy and most vulnerable. What is Better Together?

    If people don’t agree with Poverty and Social injustice. Why would anyone consider voting to stay with a system that Creates it?

    Heartless and callous’ Tories block £3m European Union fund
    to feed the hungry and poor:


  • I completely respect your arguments, and there are many people on both sides of the debate who feel very strongly about social justice issues. My main concern about the Independence debate is that we would not be leaving this system completely- that Westminster would be controlling our economic system through the currency union (either that or we don’t have a central bank), that they could actually bully us MORE than they do now through negotiation processes and that we will end up in an economic system like that of Germany and Greece – where another government effectively controls our spending power, without having to care about our economic needs at all. To be honest, I am not completely happy either with a yes or a no, because neither campaign has been able to answer the questions you raised with any real substance – and they are VERY important issues which should transcend any partisan political campaigns.

  • Press Release: An independent Scotland should keep the pound
    without rUK’s permission:

    The big independence lie: Why Scotland could keep the pound:

    Indy Scotland could flourish with or without currency
    agreement says respected institution:

    Alistair Darling agrees currency union best for UK:

    Rathad an Referendum – The Isle of Man, currency and
    independence (Eng & Galic):

    Ladbrokes: Scotland 1/100 to enter currency union – 50/1 not

  • No Problem. Political brainwashing techniques to keep people from the Poles are to create Fear and especially uncertainty (listen for the politicians use of the word every time) ‘Too much uncertainty’ and it adds to fear. All they have to do is keep lying and confuse and hide truths, and it usually scares people off.
    Darling mastered his art long time ago running a campaign to get elected saying the Tories would cut everything, now he wants us to believe everything will be fine under Tories and would rather have Tories run Scotland than the People of Scotland. Why? Because of it’s wealth as a cash cow, with a one way financial stream to London and his buddies, and as long as they have the Grip on this isles, they have the monopoly on wealth and all monies go South to him and they can do whatever they like as long as they have that grip on the UK

  • Yes. I really feel we are being manipulated by the politicians and the press, that we are being taken advantage of because most of us ordinary folk are not experts or professionals in macro economics or governance of a country! I am glad we are having this debate and opportunity to decide our political position, but it is a hugely confusing responsibility as well

  • Scotland is not the first country to gain independence and face teething problems, and even with the likes of Ireland’s turbulent past (because of the Euro) or any other, do you think ANYONE would want to go back? Smaller countries have economies that can be turned around far easier than Big Monster economies, and not only that, the UK is in a suicidal debt based economy and Scotland wants to build up a Credit based one.

    On 18th Sept, will it be Scotland the Brave, or Scotland the laughing stock, that’s the question

  • Can you please explain the difference between the UK’s current economic system and a credit based one? Would this be affected by sharing Sterling?

  • I THINK Scotland would adopt it’s own currency which I am all for, but that’s too scary to admit, but it’s more beneficial (To be honest currency is NOT a big Issue, we could use ANY currency), but in the interim, because the UK is so heavily in debt, we have to take a share of that debt (around 10%) and to do that and pay it back, we need to share the pound. Otherwise rUK takes all of that debt and we are debt free. Salmond wants to pay back that debt to keep a good Credit rating as we would most likely have to borrow money to get on out feet (at a cheaper rate than the UK charges us for our current share) so it’s not in the interest of rUK to take all the debt, so a currency agreement is in everyone’s best interest.

    The best way I can explain a debt based/credit based economy is that Currently the UK is living on a Credit card with debt they can never pay back (it always goes up as it’s a ponzi scheme when the poor pay for the dips, and rich get a Sale of goods and wealthier on the rises) a credit based economy is building up wealth (money in the bank) and withdrawing in the dips, which cushions the dips and the bank account pays instead of the poor.

  • Do you think that most of your comments might be explained by your admission “I don’t know much about most of what he discusses”?

  • No, it will be either the Scotland that likes to play Russian Roulette with a loaded revolver or it will be a Scotland that uses its head. Also, the rest of the United Kingdom will be mightily relieved if it is a No vote and we will be very pleased Scotland hasn’t turned her back on her friends and partners in the British family of nations. ONLY the stupid will laugh at her. I certainly won’t.

  • If you don’t like Corruption, Social injustice and growing poverty, you need to break this Westminster grip on the nation with this one way street of money, otherwise it will always be a one way monopoly on the nation to Westminster

  • I have seen this guy before is he and Darling the pair who got thrown out of government help wreck the economy and sold the gold off cheap

    I think they are and is it advice their offering As Bitter Together says NO THANKS

  • Old Gordon waiting to pick up his £300 pound per day for half an hours work in the Elite Social Club House of Lords
    That,s to say if someone will make him Lord Brown of Fantasy Island

  • I think Gordon Brown should take Darling and join Tony Blair and go into hiding must be the worst Trio ever in Politics which also took us into an Ilegal war which destroyed British families and others

  • It’s typical, people talk about change but when you offer it on a plate they are scared. Scotland the brave will hold it’s head in Shame if it’s a No

  • Do you know that Gordon Brown declined taking up the pension normally awarded to former prime ministers? – not too many people out there with so much integrity

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