A split in the pro-independence camp?

If the Yes campaign is to be successful, the SNP cannot afford to alienate smaller parties like the

Readers in other parts of the UK may not be all that familiar with Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party (SGP). But north of the border, the Glasgow MSP has been a mainstay of the devolved political landscape for the best part of a decade, as well as one of its most consistently radical and provocative figures. So the significance of his latest intervention in the independence debate should not be underestimated.

Speaking to Holyrood magazine last week, Harvie hinted that he might be willing to abandon his traditional support for full Scottish self-government in favour of an enhanced devolutionary settlement: "(Independence) is not a point of principle for me", he said. "It's purely pragmatic...(and we) may want to refine the policy a bit - particularly if there's a third option (on the ballot paper)". This position was confirmed by an SGP spokesperson, who told the New Statesman that the Greens' constitutional stance was "not set in stone".

Despite the SGP's marginal status in Scottish politics - they have just two MSPs out of 129 - this could be an important development. The unionists' referendum strategy is to cast the SNP as a minority pressure group out of touch with mainstream, pro-devolution opinion. If effective, this will compound the suspicion that the nationalist surge is a temporary aberration at odds with Scots' fundamental desire to remain part of the United Kingdom. One way the SNP can avoid this is to form a united front with other, smaller independence-minded parties and organisations, of which the Greens are by far the most prominent. Failure to build such a coalition could just tip the balance of odds against a Yes vote in 2014.
 
But unionists shouldn't get excited quite yet. It's no secret that Harvie feels Alex Salmond is shutting non-SNP pro-independence voices out of the Yes campaign, so it's possible his comments were really a veiled bid for greater involvement. They may also be a reflection of the Greens growing antipathy towards the SNP as the party of devolved government. Over the last five years, the SGP has become more and more critical of the nationalists. Much of their hostility is a response to what they see as the SNP's tendency to side with the interests of big business over those of the environment, with the first minister's vocal support for Donald Trump's golf course development in Aberdeenshire and the construction of a second road bridge over the Firth of Forth being the main ca! ses in point.

Yet despite these policy disagreements and the general bad feeling between the two parties, it remains probable that the Greens will still campaign for outright independence over the next two and half years. One of the major prizes of full self-government would be the power to force the removal of the British nuclear deterrent from its current home on the Clyde - a longstanding ambition of the Scottish environmental lobby. This would not be possible under maximum devolution or federalism, both of which would see defence and foreign affairs remain under Westminster control.

The fact, though, that they are even threatening such a dramatic shift in position reveals just how strained the SNP's relations with other parties in Scotland are, including those with whom it should be on good terms. Given most polls show a majority of Scots continue to oppose the break-up of Britain, the nationalists simply can't afford to further alienate any of their would-be allies.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left