The SNP’s clever but nasty politics

Nicola Sturgeon’s response to the benefits cap is a clever one, says Merryn Somerset Webb. But it’s as unpleasantly cynical as politics can get.


If the SNP really disagrees with the policy, it can reverse it in Scotland
(Image credit: 2017 Ken Jack)

Earlier this month the government put in place some relatively minor reforms to the benefits system. These limited the cash benefits in the form of tax credits that parents can claim. You can now only claim for two children.

This is not an unreasonable policy. A one-parent family with two children in which the parent works 16 hours a week at the minimum wage can currently claim cash benefits of just under £19,000 a year (look it all up here). Add salary and you have a tax free income of around £25,000. That's equivalent to an earned income of £32,000 (you don't pay tax on benefits, you do pay tax on earned income). That seems to me to be a perfectly acceptable number at which to limit annual taxpayer-funded benefit payouts.

There are also all sorts of exemptions: if you have had multiple births, if you adopt, or if your pregnancy is "non consensual" you should still be able to claim for more than one child. That all seems to me to be a good thing. It's a much-needed policy, but it makes an effort not to be an unkind one. That, however, is not how Nicola Sturgeon sees it.

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Yesterday she led a protest in Edinburgh against what she is calling the "rape clause". This is clever politics, of course. She isn't arguing about the rights and the wrongs of tax credit payments or confronting the discussion about just what level cash benefits should be capped at (there has surely even for Sturgeon to be some limit?).

Instead, she's making it nasty. Would she prefer the policy without an exemption for those who have been raped? Surely not. In which case, if she is going to argue against the policy, she needs to stop going on about rape (and trying somehow to make the word stick to Ruth Davidson) and explain why she thinks tax credit payouts should notbe capped at two children (it is a tough case to make given the sums involved see above).

Then if she and her party really disagree with the policy, she can reverse it in Scotland (her spokesman is currently "refusing to say whether the Scottish government would repeal the policy" says the Times). Anything else is about as unpleasantly cycnical as politics can get. Which is saying something these days.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.