WHEN they are finally forced out of Downing Street one desperate fingernail at a time, among the most appalling legacies of this dystopian Tory government will be the many thousands of people who lost their lives to their brutal and authoritarian social security reforms.

To a backdrop of right-wing, populist and, quite frankly, hysterical tabloid stories and toxic anti-social security propaganda, they have effectively waged an unrelenting war on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Some 330,000 excess deaths are the human cost of UK Government policies, according to researchers from the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health. Every one of them was a victim of more than a decade of austerity economics and punishing social security cuts.

The pandemic revealed how precarious so many people’s positions are, yet the Tory response has been to crack down even further.

Even from the position of an MSP, it can feel helpless in the face of the invisible army of sons, daughters, husbands, wives and friends who should still be with us but are not. Their names will never be used in Downing Street, but they are missed in homes across our country.

Child poverty is the biggest and most urgent social challenge of this age and every lost generation before it, yet it is treated by some as an inevitability, with millions of people knowingly consigned to misery.

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It is all-consuming. People living in poverty are far more likely to be in unstable jobs, far more likely to experience poor physical and mental health, and far more likely to live in cramped and overcrowded accommodation.  

And it is no accident. The cruelty of the current system is the point of it. The pain, humiliation and inequality are not unforeseen consequences of Tory economics: they go right to the heart of it.

It is a system that has caused people to die who did not need to, and inflicted totally needless suffering and mental health crises on people who could have been far happier if they had been shown some basic care and compassion from their government.

In Scotland, we have used the limited powers we have to try to do things differently.

The Scottish Child Payment has been instrumental in protecting families from the worst excesses of the Tories and the worst cruelties of market capitalism. The mitigation of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap have shown how different our priorities are. There are people who can keep their heads above water because of these choices.

They have gone alongside policies like free bus travel for everyone under 22 and the expansion of the real living wage to all public sector workers, which are directly putting money in people’s pockets.

%image('9917562', type="article-full", alt="There's only so much Scotland can do to eliminate child poverty without independence")

But these are not enough. We do not want to be in the position where we are merely offsetting the disastrous impact of a Westminster system that thrives on dividing people and pitting them against one another.

It is one of the key reasons why Scotland needs to have the powers of a normal independent country. This week’s Scottish Government paper on the role of social security in an independent Scotland was an important contribution to the debate. It outlined how our Parliament is being held back and the real constraints that come from a diminishing budget that it set for us by Downing Street.

But it’s not just about stopping the cruelty. Independence would be an immense opportunity to reimagine how we provide security to households and families.

We could bring in a system that respects people and removes the ritualistic punishment and humiliation of the sanctions regime.

It would allow us to build towards more ambitious programmes like a Universal Basic Income, a non-means-tested monthly payment to everyone in Scotland. Universal Basic Income would be set at a level that allows people to meet all of their basic needs.

Big and bold reforms like this could have a transformative and positive impact on health, wellbeing and financial security. It would remove so much of the stigma and anxiety that comes from poverty and the current benefits system. It would also free people to work in patterns and ways that suit their capabilities, responsibilities and passions.

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When such a scheme was trialled in Finland it led to a marked improvement in wellbeing and mental health. In England we are about to see trials, with groups in London and Jarrow receiving payments of £1600 a month.

This sort of intervention wouldn’t just be a different way of doing social security, it would give way to a different kind of society.

As long as we remain tied to Westminster there is little hope or chance of this kind of radical change. The Tories aren’t about to suddenly develop any kind of conscience. Labour have lost their soul in offering more of the same, shamefully barely proposing to do anything different. They would even keep the two-child benefit cap or rape clause. We can and we must do better than more years of pain delivered with a red rosette.

I don’t want Scotland to be a country where social security is used as a weapon against its recipients and where poverty is simply tolerated. We’ve endured too many years of others doing that.

The cost of living crisis – or more accurately, the cost of greed crisis – that we are living through was not created overnight. It is the result of years of failure and an uncaring approach to politics that puts the needs of a small wealthy few ahead of the well-being of millions of people.

I want children in Scotland to be born into opportunity and to age with safety, security and comfort. Independence can and must be a big step on that journey.