The UK’s social and political unions have always been closely connected. The welfare state forms a crucial part of the glue that holds the state together. The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence was perhaps the greatest challenge to the political union since the partition of Ireland in 1921, and constitutional uncertainty has returned following the vote to leave the EU. Challenges to the political union can be linked to divergent regional visions for the welfare state.

Uniformity in many areas of social policy had already been diluted between devolution in 1998 and 2010. However, social security was an important exception – in 2009, central government remained “deeply committed” to a uniform benefits system. Newly-published research in the Journal of Social Policy examines the circumstances that surrounded the weakening of this resolve. The coalition’s flagship social security reforms generated fierce criticism from parties of government in the devolved regions of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Scottish discontent proved such a potent driver of the pro-independence vote that UK political leaders agreed to the devolution of new “welfare” competences in a last-ditch effort to derail its momentum. Social security has been a devolved matter in Northern Ireland since 1921, but policy there had closely mirrored Great Britain – until the Assembly failed to pass legislation replicating the 2012 reforms.

Claims that Scotland is significantly more left wing than the UK as a whole should be treated with caution, while Northern Irish politics are dominated by a unionist-nationalist rather than left-right divide. Nonetheless, the findings of interviews with politicians and civil servants in the two devolved regions show that each can be characterised by a distinctive ideology of welfare that differs in subtle but important respects from the philosophy that underpinned coalition policy.

While elites in both regions share the aspiration of their London counterparts to a social security system that, above all, promotes employment, their vision for doing so is not identical. Whereas the UK approach to claimant activation has a strong emphasis on benefit cuts and disciplinary measures, Scottish interviewees tended to favour strengthened work incentives through a greater focus on quality of employment, a living wage and less punitive treatment of claimants. In Northern Ireland, greater acceptance of a disciplinary approach was tempered by concern that policy in Great Britain had come to treat claimants too harshly.

There was some suggestion that the challenges to uniformity of social protection from Scotland and Northern Ireland were not merely coincidental, but mutually reinforcing. The Smith Commission heard evidence on Northern Ireland’s experiences of social security devolution when considering a revised Scottish settlement and many Northern Irish interviewees believed their region’s proposed departures from coalition policy had strongly influenced its recommendations. Others felt the Scottish referendum had emboldened Northern Irish policymakers to more seriously consider the use of devolved powers that had largely lain dormant for 90 years.

Such claims of intertwined, rather than parallel, challenges to the settlement are perhaps given further weight by the similarities between the new powers being devolved to Scotland and the mitigations recommended in Northern Ireland following extension of most of the 2012 reforms to the region. Although Scotland’s new competences in the field of disability benefits will allow it to go further than the modest departures proposed in Northern Ireland, where out-of-work benefits are concerned there is a striking similarity. Both regions can be expected to vary payment arrangements for universal credit and make changes to its housing element, although Scotland cannot imitate Northern Ireland in softening the sanctions regime.

In contrast, Scottish interviewees – although interested observers of their near neighbours – were more likely to see Northern Ireland as a warning than an example. Following failure of the Welfare Reform Bill and a few subsequent false starts, the Stormont Executive ultimately allowed Westminster to substantially reinstate parity. Other than the administrative arrangements for universal credit, such mitigations as will occur will largely be temporary. With the region’s precarious finances the main curb on divergence, the chief lesson learned by most Scottish interviewees was that devolved powers on paper do not necessarily bring freedom from central government influence in practice – a trap they were eager to avoid.

It is not only in Northern Ireland that the UK government remains the dominant force in social security policymaking. The Smith recommendations, which underpin the new Scotland Act, envisage devolved control of only a minority of social security functions, with the crucial fields of pensions and non-housing out-of-work benefits reserved.

It would therefore be wrong to overstate the extent of substantive change to the social union since 2012. What has changed is the willingness of devolved governments to question the merits of state-wide uniformity in social security. Financial considerations may have largely prevailed over Northern Ireland’s desire for divergence on this occasion, but the region has nonetheless given notice that acquiescence to Westminster agendas can no longer be taken for granted. Meanwhile, the Scottish vision for social citizenship cannot be realised without control of conditionality, headline rates of out-of-work benefits or the minimum wage, therefore demand for further devolved powers is likely to remain.

Discontent with UK social policy agendas continues to pose a threat to the constitutional settlement: the Welfare Reform and Work Act exposed once again the distaste of Scottish and Northern Irish MPs for the current UK government agenda. Today, Scotland’s First Minister cites disagreement between Scotland and the UK government on another field of social policy – migration – as a possible justification for a new secessionist drive in the ‘Brexit’ era. To quote one Scottish interviewee, both social and political unions remain “in flux.”

Mark Simpson is a Lecturer in Law at Ulster University. This post draws on his article, ‘The Social Union after the Coalition: Devolution, Divergence and Convergence‘, available as a FirstView article from the Journal of Social Policy available free until the end of October 2016. The research was carried out at Ulster University under the supervision of Gráinne McKeever and Ann Marie Gary, with the support of a DEL PhD studentship and SLSA fieldwork grant.

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