The Three Sisters, Glen Coe: no bar on English tourists after the Yes vote. Photo: Getty
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Letter from Edinburgh: What it really means to be Scottish

Telling Scotland not to “go” is a bit like saying: “We don’t want you to run your own affairs. You must always have the governments we give you.”

I’ve been love-bombed. Finally! It must have been brought on by the increasing support for the Yes campaign in the opinion polls as the independence referendum approaches. “Worrying times,” wrote my English friend. “We don’t want you to go.”

I find all of this concerned talk about the Scots “going” very touching but also perplexing. I’d like to take this opportunity to reassure every lovelorn English person that if we vote to become independent, we won’t be “going” anywhere. We’ll still be here. There will be no customs barriers, no barbed wire along the Tweed. The Edinburgh festivals will still go on, we’ll still send you our smoked salmon, Travis will still play concerts for you and everyone from south of the border will be as welcome here as they have ever been.

All we are voting for is the right to elect our own governments, raise all of our own taxes and spend them as we decide – just like any normal country. Telling us not to “go” is a bit like saying: “We don’t want you to run your own affairs. You must always have the governments we give you.”

Another misconception is that we are all doomed to ethnic turmoil if Scots vote Yes. This view is epitomised by the historian Simon Schama, who denounced what he called the “tribal identity” of Scottish nationalism. The forces behind calls for independence, he said, were the same as those “happening in dreadful places, causing ethnic and tribal wars and immense massacres”.

I read his words and looked out of my window into the peaceful cobbled streets of Edinburgh, where I now live, and wondered how such a renowned historian could get it so wrong. In 25 years as a foreign correspondent, I have seen plenty of ethnic conflicts, from Kosovo and Chechnya to East Timor, and I can assure anyone disturbed by Schama’s babbling that what is happening in Scotland bears as much resemblance to those “dreadful places” as haggis does to Yorkshire pudding. It may not be to everyone’s taste but a ferocious beast it most certainly is not.

It is impossible to judge the mood in Scotland from afar. That is one of the reasons why I decided to return to my homeland a few months ago, after half a lifetime living mainly abroad – not just to experience the fun of this referendum summer but to try to re-understand my country.

A small disclaimer here. My original sin was to have been born in Yorkshire. So steeped was I in that foreign culture that, when my 100 per cent Scottish parents brought me north of the border at the age of four and I went to my first international at Murrayfield, I am said to have commented on the gents’ facilities there: “Eeh, what a foony toilet . . . there’s moock all over t’floor.” Assimilation was rapid. When we were visited by Yorkshire friends a year later, I couldn’t understand a word they said.

My next 20 years were in Scotland (I didn’t even visit London until I was at university) and I have spent the past 30-odd years, while living abroad, tirelessly insisting in a variety of foreign tongues there is actually a wee country called Scotland and it is definitely not a part of England.

So, what does it mean to be Scottish? You certainly won’t find out from any of the speeches being made during this referendum campaign. The SNP and the wider Yes campaign studiously avoid mentioning precisely what one might expect to be central to a national independence movement: identity. This is what kept my Scottish flame alight through decades of living abroad – but which dare not speak its name at home for fear of being branded nationalist or anti-English.

But nationalism does not have to be exclusive, aggressive, chauvinistic or condescending. It can be of the welcoming kind described by Kathleen Jamie in her wonderful poem inscribed on the monument to the Battle of Bannockburn. Ostensibly it commemorates the Scots’ defeat of the English in 1314 but the poem invites all incomers who take the land “to heart” to make it their own.

Independence is not about erecting barriers. The Scots and English would still be the closest allies. Yet independence would give us a chance to build a country that better reflects the identity and priorities – the political culture, if you will – of the majority of those who live here (both “ethnic” Scots and those who have come here and taken the land to heart).

Over the centuries of the union with England, we have preserved our culture, music, literature, dialects, customs, laws and Church – and all of that has created a set of Scottish values. Most of us are what I would call “Burnsian” in our scorn of privilege and our pursuit of fairness and would rather spend taxes on schools and hospitals than cosset bankers or project our might around the world
with nuclear missiles and foreign wars. These are rather high-minded values and they rarely guide the governments we get lumbered with in Westminster.

I see nothing wrong with proclaiming such an identity with pride and I find it depressing that, instead, the campaign has focused on whether we might be £500 per head better or worse off, or how we will cope with all that oil in the North Sea, which seems to be such a burden. I will vote for independence this month not because I am a nationalist but because I am a social democrat; not because I hate the English (how could I, having lived in England for years and worked for most of my life with English people?) but because I am Scottish and believe that, because of our national identity and values, we will try to run our country differently – and better – if we are able to do it in the way we choose. 

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.