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A better Scotland without bedroom tax

IT has been a long wait, and there is plenty more to come, but the last piece of process is now mercifully out of the way in the independence referendum.

With the announcement that 18 September, 2014 is the big day, it is all campaigning from here.

The Yes and No sides are both under pressure to organise, convince and inspire. It's time for the vision thing.

Alex Salmond made a bold start at the SNP conference in Inverness yesterday, sketching out the kind of fairer, more socially cohesive society Scotland could become if freed from Westminster's impositions.

Rather than a country which has things done to it by an out-of-touch government in London, Scotland could be a place where things are done for and by its own government.

Rather than endure nuclear weapons on the Clyde, an illegal war in Iraq, or barbarous welfare reforms, Scotland could make its own fate with more enlightened, European-style economic and social policies.

Childcare was Salmond's main example of the latter. The prohibitive cost of childcare in the UK depresses the numbers of working women, with just 66% in employment against 76% of men.

In Germany and Finland, the state pays more than 80% of the bill, against 25% in the UK. Salmond's suggestion that an independent Scotland could emulate its European Union neighbours and meet more of the bill, and so allow more women to work and boost the economy, has obvious appeal.

Details were scant, but Salmond's Council of Economic Advisers is now working on a report.

But who would not want a society with better childcare?

And who would not want a society free of nuclear weapons, illegal wars, or miserable ideas like the bedroom tax?

But asking people if they would like to live in such a country is the easy part. The key challenge is delivering it.

We are sympathetic to the template for a better society Salmond set out, but it needs to come with a detailed and believable economic plan.

When voters say they want more information about independence, it is the basic mechanics of the change that concerns them – how pensions will be paid, what the currency will be, the stability of the economy, defence and so on.

It may not be possible to prove conclusively that an independent Scotland will be able to afford all the initiatives the SNP are proposing, but there is pressure on the party to put up a convincing case that it is within our grasp. If the Yes campaign is to win, its vision must be built on more facts.

Scotland can do great things, but it cannot do every great thing at once. It may, however, be able to untangle its welfare system from the unfair and much-hated new bedroom tax.

When Iain Duncan Smith visited Easterhouse in Glasgow 11 years ago as Tory leader, he shed tears over the levels of deprivation he discovered there.

When he returns to Scotland this week as Work and Pensions Secretary, he won't be visiting Easterhouse and he won't be shedding any tears. But others will.

His benefit reforms have spread fear and loathing in one of the most deprived areas of the country. On April 1, housing benefit changes could force 80,000 Scots to move house or find money for a rent increase of 25%. This is the same day that the rate of tax on those earning more than £150,000 a year will be cut from 50% to 45%.

Benefits will also be cut in real terms, snatching £2.5 billion from the pockets of the poorest families over the next three years. Is this the "aspiration nation"? No, it is the desperation nation – run by a government that hands interest-free loans to wealthy families to buy second homes for their children, while penalising anyone in social housing with a second bedroom. When the Universal Benefit changes come in this October, the finances of the poorest in society are going to be plunged into chaos.

The Coalition Government revealed its true colours in last week's Budget. Placing £130bn at the disposal of home buyers in the south-east of England, while cutting benefits, is bad enough. But hidden in the Budget numbers are further cuts in welfare spending of £10bn a year, according to number crunchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Even Margaret Thatcher avoided penalising the poor. Iain Duncan Smith would do well to reflect on the fact that the Conservatives have been buried in Scotland. His war on benefits will do nothing to bring them back from the dead and will do even less for the Better Together campaign.

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