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Dr Simon Duffy

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An Over-Centralised Welfare System Is Killing the United Kingdom

Posted: 19/02/2013 00:00

As an Englishman who has spent much of my life studying and working in Scotland I have mixed feelings about the independence of Scotland. An independent Scotland is certainly feasible. Five million talented, hard working and caring people can certainly run their own country and will probably do a better job outside the United Kingdom than within it.

When Scotland leaves the Union then Wales is likely to follow a little later. Northern Ireland will then become an anachronism. In a few years it is possible that I will no longer be a citizen of the United Kingdom - I will just be an Englishman.

However, the independence of Scotland will also bring to an end one of the most successful political innovations in world history. The Union brought centuries of warfare to an end and created a powerful constitutional model, where different countries were combined and yet retained their own national, cultural and legal identities. Not a perfect or an equal union, but a system that was more respectful of national integrity than other international models.

One factor that has driven us to this point of fracture is our over-centralised welfare system. We constantly take the design of our welfare system for granted. Few people realise that the UK is one of the most centralised welfare systems in the world. Whitehall controls healthcare, education, tax and benefits. Local government controls only social care and a few other minor services.

It doesn't need to be this way. Most other countries give much more responsibility to local government on matters of tax, welfare, health, education and other public services. This enables more innovation, an increased sense of local ownership and more effective management.

Devolution did give Scotland more control over the NHS and over its education system. However the main framework of the welfare system - the tax-benefit system - remains firmly in the control of Whitehall. This is both unnecessary and damaging. It is unlikely that the current 20% cut in benefits would be happening if Scotland had full control of its social policy.

Of course many Scots have always believed in national independence. But many more are coming to realise that independence is the only way that they can protect or advance the cause of social justice in their own country. Yet again they are ruled by a Conservative Party that has no mandate in Scotland and whose values seem utterly divorced from those of Scotland.

It seems extraordinary to me that the Conservative Party does not seek to protect the union by exploring the possibility of a more radical form of devolution. Instead we see a reckless and opportunistic policy that is bating Scotland into choosing independence. It would be shameful if this policy was simply designed to strengthen the Conservative Party in Westminster by reducing the number of Scottish MPs to zero.

Increasing centralisation is killing the Union, and is damaging all our local communities. It is time to ask ourselves some much deeper questions about the design of our welfare system.

 

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