Whatever you might think of the substance, Johann Lamont’s speech last week in which she questioned the very future of certain universal entitlements has achieved its desired result as, a full ten days after it was delivered, the issues remained at the forefront of an impassioned First Minister’s Questions yesterday.
It has enabled Lamont to portray herself as leading a great national debate that has nothing to do with constitutional navel gazing.
Following his return from the Ryder Cup in America, Alex Salmond used the first opportunity he had to intervene on the debate to robustly defend entitlements such as free prescriptions and tuition fees for all as being akin to a glue that binds society together.
Speaking just days after Lamont used her appearance at Labour’s annual conference in Manchester to accuse the SNP of being “Tartan Tories”, Salmond did likewise, accusing Scottish Labour of adopting Tory policies.
“How are the working families of Scotland going to benefit from adopting the policies the Tory party have adopted south of the border?
“To hold society together we have to make sure that certain things are so important, like free education in Scotland, that the people who are lucky enough to be in a position to make the contribution through their taxation can see the benefit socially as well.
“That’s how you hold society together.
“The introduction of sweeping means testing across the valuable areas of society will introduce both inefficiency and social division, a point the Labour party recognised and, by and large, stayed faithful to for many years and now is deserting.”
In response, Lamont accused the SNP of failing to live in the real world before explaining her understanding as to why he might feel everything in the world is free.
“He’s on £130,000 a year, he spends almost two grand a week on hospitality, then gets the taxpayer to spend £1,300 a year for a TV package to watch the films and sport events - which he then gets them to pay for him to attend.
“The first minister does not live in the real world. He lives in a world where it’s fine to spend £400,000 to rent out a gentlemen’s club in Pall Mall, but doesn’t worry about the care worker who’s had their wages cut by £4,000 a year. He’s not an economist, he’s a fantasist.”
In his assessment of the exchange, Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s political editor, argued it was Salmond rather than Lamont that had managed to get the upper hand.
He wrote on his blog:
“There is, it would appear, a discernible pattern in the current state of play at Holyrood with regard to the debate over public spending.
“The SNP is seizing what it believes is a political opportunity granted by their principal opponents. That is, to characterise Labour as posing a threat to valued services by their questioning of universality – suggesting further that this stance matches that of the Tories.
“Labour’s approach is to blend a pragmatic defence of prioritisation in service provision – with straightforward personal attacks upon their SNP opponents.
“To date, we have witnessed two ad hominem attacks (upon Alex Salmond and Derek Mackay). Last week we got the ad feminam version when Johann Lamont depicted Nicola Sturgeon as living in a £200k salary household, remote from everyday concerns.
“The attack upon Alex Salmond today was of the same stamp and, of course, seeks to build upon Labour’s previous depiction of Mr Salmond as a friend of the wealthy.
“Reserving the personal stuff until last, Ms Lamont lampooned the FM – his salary, his hospitality budget, his TV package. He did not, she averred, live in the real world.
“Alex Salmond dealt with it all rather well. Laughing, he rose and declared: “So much for the quality debate!” (Johann Lamont had pleaded for high grade political scrutiny.) His colleagues joined in the laughter. Ms Lamont looked just a little frosty.”
The debate came just hours before Scotland’s former Auditor General Robert Black praised Labour at Holyrood for having started the debate.
Declaring it a “good thing” Scottish Labour were starting to ask questions he told BBC Newsnight Scotland:
“We need to do more of that but we need to do it as a society. I mean can we really afford all the services that are free at the point of delivery?
“If you take free personal nursing care and the national concessionary travel scheme, the free bus passes. When those schemes were set up there was no hint given that the costs of those would be rising as quickly as they are now.
“As we said in Audit Scotland reports in my day, the concessionary travel scheme could cost not far short of half a billion pounds by the time we get through to the 2020s.
“Were the MSPs aware of that when they launched the policy? I suspect the frank answer is not. So to that extent I think I am on safe ground by saying the affordability of some this has to be questioned, we do need to revisit it. Every pound that goes on bus passes for well off older people is a pound that is not available for other things.”
In commending the “courage” of Ms Lamont in raising the question, meanwhile, the Scotsman’s leader column this morning concludes:
“This debate deserves at least equal prominence with that on further constitutional change, directly affecting, as it does, the central questions of debt, austerity, priorities and fairness. What possible political gain is to be had from pretending the larder of entitlements is full when the figures point in the opposite direction?”