I often feel like I write about Scotland too much. However, I spent the first 24 years of my life in Scotland, and I assume that I'll move back at some point, so it's hard for me to ignore the debate that's raging north of the border. This past week has seen the whole process taking a new turn as Labour leader Johann Lamont has spelled out an incredibly high risk strategy that could play a major role in deciding the results of the next election as well as that of the 2014 referendum.
Over the last five years the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) has become a diminished force. While the Westminster wing has fared well the Edinburgh one has not. In 2007 they lost power to a resurgent SNP, and 2011 saw they crumbling to a historic low. With a rudderless leadership and a lack of political purpose they fell into a default mode that was characterised by bitterness, mediocrity and opposing change for the sake of it.
Johann's speech last Tuesday was definitely important; it saw her outlining her opposition to the very policies that have made the Scottish Parliament into the most progressive on these islands. She challenged the government over their universal provisions, including free higher education and prescription charges, and on other popular policies, including extra police on the streets. The tone was a curious rhetorical combination of old school conservatism and traditional class war, as she castigated state spending and demanded to know why top bankers and CEOs should be among those to benefit from a council tax freeze.
The SLP has always been best when it's been boldest, such as when they brought in free healthcare for the elderly, abolished student fees and introduced the smoking ban. Unfortunately little of that boldness has remained since they entered opposition.
Lamont's latest move was definitely bold, but does it represent Labour values?
Beneath her talk about getting household bills in order and balancing the books there was the stern message that Scotland has become a 'something for nothing' society with too many giveaways. Is there anything fair about giving CEOs a free prescription? On its own no, but free prescriptions don't just apply to CEOs, they apply to everyone. Using means-testing doesn't just stigmatise the recipients of a benefit but the focus on forms and assessment has also been shown to be a barrier that can deter many of the people who are entitled to them. A cornerstone of universalism has to be that everyone is treated equally in the eyes of the state and that those who can afford to pay extra do so through taxation.
While the moral case for universal welfare is strong there are also pragmatic reasons. For example, when considering the cost of reintroducing prescription charges one would need to consider the cost of the administration and assessment required for the change, which when combined with the consultation and public information campaigns and cost of government time would ensure that any saving was negligible. There are also wider considerations, if university tuition was means-tested then it would throw up a number of questions; what about students from wealthy families who don't receive a parental contribution? What about students from poorer backgrounds who are training to become doctors and can expect to make more money than students from affluent backgrounds who are studying arts? These exceptions, inconsistencies and moral grey areas illustrate another reason for having a universal welfare system in the first place, it's easier.
Lamont could have opted to propose an alternative local tax system, or focused on the need to devolve greater powers to allow the economy to grow, but she didn't. Her speech appears to have been written to stop party infighting as much as anything else; it promised extra money to please Labour councils, a more conservative financial policy to please Westminster and bashed the SNP enough to please the Hollyrood group. However, in accepting the narrow parameters of the debate set by the Coalition in London she has lost the chance to outflank the SNP from the left. If anything her most damming response came from Tory Deputy Leader Murdo Fraser, who Tweeted; "Good to see Johann warming to Tory ideas on the unfairness of give-aways."
As a critical supporter in London I take no pleasure in seeing the Labour party treading water in the shallow end of the political pool. A Sunday Times poll in July put the SNP on 47% and Labour on only 32%. Two weeks later a Yougov poll found that over one third of voters think the party are 'untrustworthy' and 'out of touch.' With the referendum on the horizon some are suggesting that Johann's intervention has made the debate into a straight left vs. right choice, with the YES campaign representing social democracy and growth and the NO campaign representing austerity and cuts. I think that may be going too far, but if she allows it to happen then she risks overseeing the terminal decline of her party and quite possibly the breakup of Britain.