The union state and the social contract
Scottish nationalists who claim the UK will fund pensions after independence or ask why no independent country wants to return to it miss the point. National bonds matter
The debate over Scottish independence is filled with wearying, recurrent rows. Currency, borders, fiscal transfers, the UK home market, EU membership: the list goes on. Until recently, responsibility for state pensions did not feature. That changed when Ian Blackford asserted ‘a right to a UK pension, no ifs and no buts’ and that Westminster had an obligation to pay them, come what may.
Unionists have since made their incredulity clear. Meanwhile, some nationalists have retreated from motte to bailey, pointing to the need to split assets as well as liabilities. But there are no ‘assets’ to speak of here. State pensions are not funded; the contributory principle is a polite fiction. The National Insurance Fund holds enough money for a couple of months of state pensions. The reality is that state pensions are a benefit the state pays and chooses to link to NI records. If Scottish independence means anything, it means leaving the UK’s benefits system. Nationalists usually make a point of that, after all.
Who becomes a Scottish or UK pensioner after independence could indeed be tricky. Expatriates, people who worked across the UK and people who paid to top up their NI records are real people, who must be assigned to a state to pay out or not. But while the detail is complex, the underlying principle is simple. At present, the UK pays a state benefit to current pensioners, funded by current taxpayers. If Scotland leaves the UK, its taxpayers are no longer in on the deal. It will have to reinstate that deal between a smaller set of workers and a smaller set of pensioners. Not for the first or last time, the SNP is exploiting complex details to blur simpler truths.
Let’s imagine Scotland offered to pay for access to UK pensions for those who had paid UK contributions. (We can ignore EU law for now, pending any potential Scottish accession.) London has no reason to agree to that if Scottish people are no longer British citizens. There is nothing to gain and a little to lose fiscally. It would complicate any future UK pension reform until the last transitional pensioner passed away. It is a non-starter: in effect, it is 2014’s sterling currency union all over again.
The process of making an absurd statement, claiming to be misunderstood, offering opaque ‘explanations’ so confusion remains and crying ‘scaremongering’ to cover your tracks is familiar enough in this debate. So is painting the UK as an overbearing behemoth set to become a paragon of forbearing once Scots vote to leave it. But this saga betrays a lack of comprehension as well as candour. Despite its raison d’être, Scottish nationalism has forgotten that shared citizenship matters.
To be clear, state pension entitlements are not themselves a question of citizenship. But the social contract which makes them tenable very much is. In the main, a country’s workers pay for its pensioners. We’re almost all going to be old one day; we recognise a mutual obligation to our fellow citizens. But that obligation is, in the main, defined by the compass of the state. Expatriates, frontier workers and so on are exceptions who prove the rule.
A longstanding nationalist trope makes much the same point. It shows a map of former British territories with their independence dates, and asks: has a single one asked to return to British rule? Of course, being a British colony and being an integral part of the UK are different things. Still, on their own terms, they’re right. The answer is ‘no’ (I’ll ignore the temporary and anomalous case of Newfoundland), and that says something important. But it’s something important to the case for the British union, not against it.
The reasons none of these countries would even consider weighing up a shared state over their own state are simple. The UK’s institutions have long ceased to be their institutions in their eyes (or they never were). Their interests are not inherently, or even particularly closely, linked to the UK’s. Above all, the British people are not their people anymore (if and to whatever extent they ever were). Polite fictions of Commonwealth citizenship aside, we are foreigners now. As such, they have no wish to pool their fate with us. Were Scotland to leave the UK, I am sure it would never ask — or be asked — to rejoin. That does not argue for independence. It shows that the Union’s mix of British national solidarity and Scottish national distinctiveness is rare indeed.
Forging that mix took decades. In the seventeenth century, English MPs were wary at best of forming a new kingdom. Scottish politicians considered British relations rather more often. Still, it took a succession crisis to bring matters to a head in England and hard bargaining to accommodate interests in Scotland. It was well into the eighteenth century when the incorporating but limited Union of 1707, before mass democracy and the welfare state, began to take popular hold. The Union between Great Britain and Ireland never secured the same loyalty among most in Ireland or the same investment in Great Britain. So-called Imperial Federation with the then Dominions never got very far.
On our own continent, the European Union has gone further than most to get states to pool destinies. It is noble in principle, for all its faults in practice, and a project worth supporting. But the eurozone’s travails show its limits. Germany and Greece won’t underwrite each other as Galashiels and Greenwich do. NATO offers its members a defence guarantee — one which, so far, hasn’t been tested. But its members squabble over defence spending. US commitment gives Europeans cause for concern. Public opinion is often queasy at best about following through if required.
In short, nothing approaching the kind of mutual backing within the United Kingdom is available to Scotland outside it. Unionists are right: if Scots cease to be British, pensions and pensioners will become a responsibility to disentangle, and the UK will have no part in pooling Scotland’s risks. Nationalists are right: if Scotland leaves the UK, it will never seek to return, however hard the road. In both cases, that is what cutting bonds of citizenship and sentiment means.
At its heart, that is what Scottish independence means. That remains true, for all the talk of European nationhood. It remained true when Winnie Ewing said ‘Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on!’ (She campaigned against the EEC in 1975, before the SNP’s change of heart.) It remains true when some try to obscure it by painting ‘Brexit Britain’ as a xenophobic backwater. Internationalism is sometimes the means; nationalism is always the end. And once you turn erstwhile fellow citizens into the Other, there is no going back — on either side.