I’ve not had a chance to read or see the exact speech that Johann Lamont gave when she attacked the Scottish Government’s ‘something for nothing’ attitude, or Nicola Sturgeon’s widely agreed hammering of the Labour leader on the same. While I do believe that tying quickly exaggerated Scottish politics bunfights to reality is worthwhile, I believe I can understand the argument that was being made well enough to comment. A recent poll did after all show that a majority of Scots wanted students to pay directly for their tuition, contrary to current Scottish Governmental policy, and with the majority of the cuts not yet in Swinney’s budgets, there is fertile ground here for Labour to make hay, if they want to do so.
My main concern over this speech is that the Government providing for certain sections of society is seemingly seen as ‘something for nothing’, likening students, patients, welfare claimants to charity cases rather than taxpayers receiving a service. It would be an unfortunate linkage from any politician, but it’s particularly shocking from a Labour one.
Money can only go so far, and I must admit I treated the SNP manifesto with a heavy dose of suspicion when I read it, believing that it was only the Greens who were playing straight with the electorate when they proposed revenue raising in order to pay for similar commitments. It has been so far so good from the SNP of course, and John Swinney in particular, but to what extent councils can absorb the pain to get through this funding pinch over the next few years remains to be seen. It is difficult to criticise a political party for delivering a manifesto that it won a majority for though. Manifestoes should be written on stone, despite what Nick Clegg says.
Not that the above is necessarily the discussion that is being played out in the press at the moment, I’ve noticed that the debate has very quickly got personal.
There is something quite grubby about trying to link the Sturgeon household’s income to a substantial debate on Scotland’s spending policy, but it’s worth noting that a household earning £200k gross salary (as ‘The Sturgeons’ are reported to do) will be paying tax at a level not too far off £100k. Should we really begrudge such people the odd ‘free’ hayfever prescription? It all just seems a bit petty and parochial.
The real debate should be around how much money we need to pay for the things we want which, by definition, requires Scotland to agree on what it wants. Johann Lamont’s approach to that debate is to meekly accept the money that is heading north from UK coalition spending decisions and trying to make do on that. That is Johann’s decision but it doesn’t suggest much in the way of ambition or big picture politics. The choice will ultimately come down to either compromising on our principles due to the constraints of the money we receive from George Osborne or breaking that link through independence or fiscal autonomy and raising whatever we need. Put another way, does Scotland want the means to raise the revenue required in order to fund the public sector that we want? I would have hoped so.
I don’t really see how Scotland can harmoniously coexist with the rest of the UK when south of the border moves towards free schools, privatised NHS, £9k/year tuition fees and needlessly expensive non-devolved defence spending which prohibits, through the allocated spending block, Scotland taking too markedly a different path.
There are not many political decisions that I feel that passionately about. Higher education free at the point of use is one and universal healthy school meals for all school children up to a certain age is another. They are not giveaways, they are a value-for-money price of a healthy, educated populace that will power the economy and take the strain off the health service (which should also be free at the point of use, right up to getting your prescription). They operate in blessed ignorance of background and class, of whether your parents earn £20k, £200k or £2m. Universal provision is, surely, the bulwark of social mobility, with tax rates required to flex affordability, not means testing. I am concerned that Scottish Labour seemingly disagrees.
Johann Lamont bringing alternative suggestions to John Swinney’s budgets to the table would be welcome (not that she has as yet that I have seen) but my heels will be unapologetically dug in on the side of the direction that the SNP is trying to take us and the universal provision that will move all of Scotland, not just those who can afford it, forwards to a healthier, smarter and happier future.