Labour MPs have sought to shore up Johann Lamont’s position following her speech last week which left many in the Scottish party perplexed as she questioned the long-term viability of universal benefits such as free university tuition, free perceptions and the council tax freeze available for all.
Arguing the public were seeking “candour and honesty” from their politicians on the economic decisions to be made, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander yesterday told BBC Radio Scotland:
“It’s almost a year into Johann’s term in office. I think now is the right time to open up that conversation and say ‘Are there better routes towards a more just and fairer Scotland?’.
“Scotland has long believed in a society characterised by opportunity for all and fairness of outcomes.
“In these tough times I think it’s a legitimate question to say ‘Are there new routes forward to that fairness? Are there better ways, in tough fiscal circumstances, to try and deliver that vision of a good society?’.”
In a sign, however, of the divisions emerging within the party, Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones was adamant free prescriptions for all would not be going anywhere.
Speaking on the day of his speech to conference, he told BBC Radio Wales:
“We believe it’s important that we have an NHS that’s free at the point of delivery. We are not going to change the policy on free prescriptions.
“If you see a doctor for free, then obviously medicines should be free as well.”
Elaborating on her thinking, meanwhile, Lamont hinted at using new tax-varying powers being provided to the Scottish Parliament to finance public services.
The terms of the Scotland Act, which became law earlier this year, provides for the income tax rate in Scotland to be reduced by 10%, with the Scottish Parliament then responsible to bring it back up or make variations. The power is expected to come into force in April 2016, just before the next Holyrood election.
With Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson having this weekend pledged a Tory administration in Scotland would cut income tax by 1p to be funded by cutting back on what she dubbed “freebies”, Lamont used an interview with the website ScotsPolitics.com to argue:
“If you have got tax powers, you have to make a decision as to whether you would use them, whether people would find it acceptable, that’s why I think there needs to be a debate just now.
“And yes we will look at the powers. The Scottish Parliament has been given new powers. Both the Scottish Government and I am sure ever political party will be looking at what the different options are that these now offer and the responsibilities and accountabilities that go with them.”
“Now I certainly think everybody has to come together on these things, decide what your balance of taxation against services is but the line that the SNP perpetuates is that it is possible to have Scandinavian-style services and not fund it.”
Stateside, meanwhile, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond has used an interview during his time at the Ryder Cup to tell local Chicago Radio Station WBEZ that spending limits should be imposed on the independence referendum campaign whilst recognising he had a mountain to climb in persuading Scottish voters to back his dream of independence.
Pressed by the station that the deciding factor could be “how snotty the British get about this”, Salmond responded:
“I love the word snotty. I’ve heard many descriptions about what is going to decide the referendum but snottiness is not one (of them). We’re two years out from this referendum and I think there is a persuasion job to be done, but I think we’re capable of having that persuasion campaign. And I think given the circumstances we’ll face, and the opportunities that we have, I’m confident that we’ll get a Yes vote for independence.”
“It’s rather important to have limits on campaign spending and that applies to elections and referendums. Why? Because you don’t want someone to buy the ballot. And certainly if you’re coming to a vote on independence, you don’t want it ‘bought and sold for English gold’.
“We wouldn’t want that to happen. A tight campaign limit, a fair campaign limit that is the same for both sides of course, is very important in a referendum.
“And if I could offer this free advice to the American people, I think given the democracy that is so evident everywhere in America and the wonderful free expression of opinions and ideas, if there was a way to do that without spending billions of dollars then I think a lot of people would like that as well.”