SNP can’t have its cake and eat it on welfare.
It was Bill Clinton’s chief political adviser Dick Morris who was the first to use the term “triangulation” as he described his tactics during the 1996 US presidential campaign.
Taking Republicans by surprise, Clinton advocated deregulation and balanced budgets, even declaring the “era of big government” (after his election) to be “over”.
By doing so, a Democrat had adopted the most popular elements of his opponents’ platform, thus insulating himself from political attacks on those particular issues. Morris had several enthusiastic students in the UK, not least Tony Blair who triangulated his way to victory in 1997.
Another of his keen followers was Alex Salmond.
For almost as long as he’s been leader of the SNP, Salmond has attempted to triangulate on independence for Scotland. The result is a party which draws on several ideological traditions while pursuing a vision of independence which promises the things people like about the UK will stay pretty much the same.
It’s a pretty conservative form of independence, in which the Queen, the Bank of England, the European Union and other pan-UK institutions or markets will still have a Scottish presence.
After last week, the Welfare State can be added to that list, at least in the short term.
In a report from an “expert group” established by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier this year, it was recommended that the administration of pensions and benefits in an independent Scotland ought to be shared with the rest of the UK for a transitional period, perhaps lasting until 2020.
The report makes a cogent case, pointing out that most benefits paid to Scots are already administered in Scotland, while many English benefits are also dealt with north of the border.
In order not to disrupt this, say the authors, some sort of transitional arrangement would be in the best interests of both parties. But the report was also quite clear this would mean policy changes such as scrapping the “bedroom tax”, would be almost impossible to implement until that transitional period came to an end.
Ms Sturgeon simply rejected that inconvenient conclusion, alluding to Northern Ireland where welfare is already separately administered.
That, however, didn’t really stack up, because the province does not significantly depart from welfare policy in Great Britain, simply varying the frequency of benefit payments, and so on. It is on this point the SNP are trying to have their cake and eat it too: attempting to convince voters that pensions and benefits will be undisturbed, while pledging to scrap bits they don’t like such as the bedroom tax something the First Minister recently claimed would happen within a year of independence.
The trouble is that the SNP doesn’t really have a welfare policy of its own.
Asked a few days ago what a Scottish welfare state might look like, Ms Sturgeon said would support Scotland’s “fundamental objectives as a country”, chiefly “protecting the vulnerable” and “supporting people into work”.
This, of course, could mean virtually anything.
That isn’t to say welfare is the strongest weapon in the Unionist armoury either. Arguing that Scots and rest of the UK are “Better Together” while cutting benefits is an obvious point of tension, while the bedroom tax has become a prominent issue in the referendum campaign precisely because it’s a demonstrably bad piece of Coalition policy.
Ed Balls, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, has also provided the SNP with a gift by floating the idea of regional benefit caps. But at least he and Iain Duncan Smith are rightly or wrongly engaging with the bigger picture.
Nationalist thinking on welfare is still at the level of carping from the sidelines.
Even so, the SNP’s about-turn is mainly rhetorical. Just a few months ago Ms Sturgeon remarked that “leaving welfare to Westminster” was “more worrying than ever”, now she says a lengthy transitional period is in the best interests of both Scotland and the UK.
In other words, triangulation can only go so far before it looks ridiculous.