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.