I have not posted here for some time as I took a little breather over the summer. However Johann Lamont’s recent speech in Edinburgh has prompted me to put pen to paper again as it were. I have read and reread her speech and still find it very hard to understand what she is trying to say and more importantly perhaps, why she went to all this bother Her speech seems to be a very clear attack on the principle of universal benefits, despite some feeble attempts by her supporters to deny this. Most commentators have concentrated on this part of her speech.
In this post I want however to highlight what was missing in her speech and to argue that this makes her both dishonest and defeatist. To give her some credit she does make some very pertinent observations. For example when she states: “This is the stark choice that Scotland has to face up to: if we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere.” She then goes on to correctly, in my view, state that: “Once we have decided as a country what kind of public services we aspire to, then we must have an honest debate about affordability.”
Unfortunately the rest of her speech was to ignore completely the issue of affordability. For this reason I feel she is being dishonest. She repeatedly insists that there will be less money around. While this is true for the immediate future, it is not the result of some immutable law of nature. It is the wholly political and ideological choice of our current nasty government in Westminster. Yet at no stage in her speech does Ms Lamont challenge this situation. Her whole premise is based on accepting whatever Westminster decides to allocate to Scotland. We can argue and debate about who gets what, but we must never challenge the amount we get. This it seems to me is a most defeatist approach. So in essence I accuse Johann Lamont of being both dishonest and defeatist.
In her speech Ms Lamont was quite happy to highlight some of the gross inequalities that demean Scotland. For example she asks: “What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?” In parliament she continued with this line by exposing how much Nicola Sturgeon and her husband earn. Now, I agree with Johann Lamont on this. It is wrong and in my view indefensible that we have people earning £100, 000 and more a year while pensioners need care. But where I fundamentally disagree is that this iniquity can be solved by means testing or restricting universal benefits. The answer it seems to me is to increase taxes on high earners like Nicola Sturgeon. But of course Johann Lamont cannot do that because the Scottish Parliament has no real powers over fiscal matters. And it is her refusal to contemplate any serious debate about this issue that confirms to me that she is dishonest when it comes to talking about affordability. She is right that we cannot have a mature debate about what kind of public services we aspire to for our country without including affordability. But equally we cannot have a mature debate about affordability if we do not have the powers over taxation and the economy in general.
This does not necessarily mean independence, though of course that is one option, and the one I personally favour. However there is a range of options within the UK for Scotland to be given control over significant areas of taxation to full fiscal autonomy. But on this Johann Lamont has nary a word to say. The only tax she mentioned was the Council tax. Which she apparently wants to increase. Probably the most regressive and hated tax of all.
Ms Lamont concludes her speech with bit of a rallying call when she claims: “But we can change Scotland now. We have the powers in the Scottish Parliament now, to change radically education, health, public services. What we lack is the will.” This again is to my mind another example of the basic dishonesty in her whole approach. Firstly a minor point, there are some radical changes going on in Scotland. I will mention only one - the Curriculum for Excellence. Whatever one thinks of this, it is certainly an attempt at radical change. And one that was initiated under a previous Labour government at Holyrood. So I find her belittling of what has changed and is changing in Scotland both insulting and surprising.
The more fundamental point of course is that it is manifestly not just the will which is lacking in Scotland. It is the money. As she herself admits, there will be less money around. Yet she makes no suggestion whatsoever as to how we might increase the money available for public services. Whether it is the UK or Scotland we are talking about very wealthy countries. To claim that we must content ourselves with whatever Westminster condescends to give us is to my mind both dishonest and defeatist.