Universalism

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Image by David Kerr, with thanks

 

Johann Lamont’s extended and public self-immolation has churned up some fascinating divisions in how our politicians see the world. One group sees the rich (defined vaguely as anyone earning over £40,000 and the stratospherically rich leaders of the kleptocracy) mooching off the rest of us like cackling vultures: “Free prescriptions? Sure, for those who need them and for hard working families on a budget. But for Fred Goodwin?”

Another sees the potential for expanding the consensus on providing care for elderly people, health benefits and access to education. These are not new or radical ideas.

To refresh memories Fred Goodwin had a pay-off of £16 million. He’s not down at your Boots pharmacy scamming his way to some free heavy-dose Benilyn. Even the language of ‘freebies’ is a debasing one that’s been driven by years of tabloid and right-wing vitriol. It’s part of the gradual erosion of a civilised understanding of how society works.

The idea is being banded about that any ‘benefit’ that accrues to anyone should be means-tested, targeted or abolished. Apart from being a catastrophic narrowing of options about what could pay for public deficit, at it’s worst this idea breaks the last connection with the idea that we are a society experiencing a common world and sharing a public realm.  This notion’s been under attack for years and it’s tragi-comic that it’s Labour that wants to further fatally undermine it.

Once we completely dissolve the idea of having a shared common good, we’ll find it harder and harder to act collectively whether that’s on the environment, on land, on social policy or on health. In fact as the Reid Foundation points out: “If you’re going to end universalism, one way or another, sooner or later, it means the end of the NHS. We have seen this in England where it will soon be all but gone as a universal public service. And Ms Lamont can object all she wants, it is the only theoretical end-point for the sorts of arguments on which she is now basing her leadership.”

The idea feeds into the concept of the deserving and the undeserving poor, leads us back into the demeaning blind-alley of means-testing and shuts down other arguments for looking at where and how we should collect raise and save money after the collapse of the economy brought on by financial and political ineptitude. But more than this it undermines the very concept of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people having a different, bolder, more progressive agenda and culture. Something that is, by itself, anathema to the Unionist mindset.

As one MSP put it:

“My feeling is that Lamont is very much following the agenda of the right wing media in Scotland who have been pushing this line for years eg Scotland giving itself unaffordable treats. Attacks on universal benefits as you know are relentless.  It goes right back to the days of Henry McLeish and in my view is pushed by ultra unionists to tarnish the reputation of the Scottish parliament being irresponsible (eg incapable of governing ourselves) and stir up discontent in England about Scottish “subsidy junkies”.

What’s the basis of the argument for universal benefits? It starts from the notion that we all pay in to a common treasury, at different times of life, when we are fit, or working age or able. This then allows us to draw on that common good. It’s the basis for any decent society and if anything after we have emerged from these years of rampant individualism, corporate greed and venal politics, we’d want more not less of policies and principles that puts everyone on an even level.

Even if you take a wholly pragmatic view of the Labour leader’s attacks, swallowing hook line and sinker the line that we can’t live in a land of freebies’, it doesn’t add up. As Iain Macwhirter writes: “There is a presumption that universal policies are unfair and regressive. But it is often fairer ad more efficient for services to be paid for centrally through general taxation, which itself is based on the ability to pay.”

The idea of universal provision has its origins in classic post-war Labourism. But the concept has its roots in organic societies and was outlined by the anthropologist Paul Radin in 1971. He described this sort of bond as the ‘Irreducible Minimum’:

“In nonhierarchical societies, certain customs guide human behavior along basically decent lines. Of primary importance among early customs was the principle of the irreducible minimum (to use Paul Radin’s expression), the shared notion that all members of the same community are entitled to means of life, irrespective of the amount of work they perform. To deny anyone food, shelter, and the basic means of life because of their infirmities or even their frivolous behavior would have been seen as a heinous denial of the very right to live.” (- Murray Bookchin, from “Social Ecology and Communalism”)

If Lamont’s death-rattle does anything to shake-up policy debate it should be for the left and progressive forces to be stunned into action to create a universalism that is wider and deeper, restoring the decades of damage done by successive Thatcherite governments whether of Labour and Conservative or Liberal parties.

Only the other day Francis Stuart of SCVO wrote: “We have a social democratic consensus on universal services and a neo-liberal consensus on taxation. It’s time to challenge this contradiction.” Today only one of those sentences remains true.

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  1. eleanor Brailsford says:

    if she had something to say … we would like to hear it

  2. If I had a social conscious and was still in Labour, I would be seriously considering setting up my own break away organization now. All decency has left the old party.

  3. Spot on. Part of Lamont choosing the neo-liberal attack on universalism is a reaction to the success of the Yes Campaign on the economic case for independence. They feel the need to recurdle the subsidy-junkies, too wee and too poor line. It is also partly resentment about losing in 2011, the we can’t afford it line can be spun into the SNP cooked the books and cheated to win the election with promises they can’t sustain. My thoughts at http://www.scottishrepublic.eu/scottish/johann-lamont-and-the-politics-of-resentment/

  4. Doug Daniel says:

    We need to stop the rot while we still can. People need to be reminded why we pay taxes, and that it’s a good thing, the hallmark of a civilised, caring society. We need to say to people “look at Sweden – they don’t moan because 51% of their salary goes on taxes, they feel proud because they know they’re a caring, democratic society. Don’t you want Scotland to be like that?”

    I think the thing that always put me off voting for the SSP was they talked about taxing the rich, like it was a punishment. But that just makes taxes in general seem like a punishment. We need to get the public to think of tax as a good thing.

    I’ve always thought we should do this post-independence, to avoid scaring off the business folk with the loudest voices. But with Labour’s lurch to the right making the referendum look increasingly like a battle between left and right, I’m wondering if we should just ignore the rich – who have no more votes than the rest of us – and concentrate on appealing to people’s general sense of fairness. With the right-wing media, it’s a difficult task, but maybe we can do it?

  5. J K Rowling on why she’s stayed in the UK.

    “…I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.”

  6. ColinMeek says:

    I am worried that because the opposition in Holyrood is so dire, so unprofessional and so incompetent that this may actually damage the prospects of independence. Let me explain. I speak to friends and colleagues who despair about Scottish Labour – many, like me, used to vote Labour. Many, also like me, now support independence. But I fear that if the formal opposition continues to exhibit such incompetence then many will start to fear that the parliamentary system – after independence – may be too weak to have a vigorous democracy. The argument goes like this: if this is the calibre of the politician now – God help us when we have to look after ourselves. Seeing Labour in a mess is a double edged sword.

    1. Sorry, Colin, but that seems to be one of the weakest, most contrived arguments for voting NO I have ever heard. How do you know what the opposition – or even the government – in an independent Scotland would look like? Scottish Labour is handicapped by the burden of past , eclipsed hegemony, and the short leash being gripped tightly by London. Post independence, neither of these will apply. New parties will emerge, and however raw and unformed they are at the start, they can’t possibly be worse than the unionist parties currently ruling the UK.

      1. Whilst I understand your comment Sion, rest assured the more incompetent the opposition become the more the Hitler/Mugabe diatribe will be developed by the MSM. That’s one of the reasons for promising the safeguard of a written constitution. And contrary to those who think that this can wait til after we have ‘won’ it needs to articulated in advance of the referendum. I am terrified that many Nationalists think that all of this can be left til later. To win the 30% who don’t know they need a clear vision and a set of safeguards afforded by only a written constitution – something the Unionists consistently avoid!

      2. Siôn, don’t underestimate the strength of the “better the devils you know” argument; it could be said to be symbolic of quite a few people who, while not exactly 100% happy with the UK, are simply sufficiently unsure about the alternative that they will likely vote for the status quo. That said, I think it’s rather naive to assume that (a) new parties would form in a post-independent Scotland, and (b) that they couldn’t “be worse than the unionist parties currently ruling the UK”. They could. Though if they are, of course, it would be up to us to change them.

      3. ColinMeek says:

        Err, Sion. If you read my comment you’d that I am not arguing for voting no. I am utterly convinced of the merits of Scotland gaining independence. What I’m saying is that Labour’s head-long dive into an incoherent mess is genuinely unsettling for many who are considering voting Yes. Of course new parties will emerge and old parties will transform post referendum. But that it no consolation for those who watch Holyrood debates now and feel as if they are staring into the abys.

  7. Ken MacColl says:

    Johann appears to br at one with Nick Clegg. I treasure his vision of Srallan Sugar using his bus pass to get to the Upper House.

  8. leavergirl says:

    Taxing income is dumb. What you tax, you get less of. Should be taxing the use of resources instead.

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