Universal benefits and the soul of Scottish democracy

Johann Lamont’s attack on benefit culture in Scotland marks a significant intervention in the nation’s political landscape. As Scottish Labour seek to differentiate themselves further from the SNP the inseparable bond between constitutional change and social justice takes centre stage. 

A number of pantomime villains have crossed our screens of late with malicious intent on their mind, out to harm vulnerable people, make mischief and engage in duplicity.

This is not the latest outing of J.R. Ewing in the return of hit TV series ‘Dallas’, I'm talking about that other retro-outfit seemingly stuck in the 1970s: the Scottish Labour Party and the dismissive response of many to Johann Lamont’s attack on the "something for nothing" culture of Nationalist Scotland.

The reaction has been blistering in places. Iain Macwhirter could not contain himself, likening Lamont to "Nick Clegg without the apology" while Nicola Sturgeon described her as the "poster girl for the Tories".

Lamont’s speech this week has been a significant intervention in Scottish politics. She proposed that Labour set out to review the effect and consequences of policies such as free care for the elderly, free tuition fees, the council tax freeze and free prescriptions.

She charged that this was creating a society "when the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich" and that if we wanted to continue with these policies we would have to consider paying from them "either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere".

It is true that her language at points was careless and buying into caricature, claiming that these policies were funded "all on the never-never", while "something for nothing" reinforced the right wing attack on the so-called entitlement culture.

The Labour Party’s rationale is based on its desire to differentiate itself from the SNP: it cannot continue, as it did in 2011, hugging the Nationalists close. It also feels it has to open up a debate about the distributional consequences of policy decisions and tough choices in hard times; all aided by the positioning of ‘Honest Johann’ against ‘shifty Alex’.

Scotland does need to have a debate about what it thinks fairness and social justice are. Nicola Sturgeon responded to Lamont with the argument that SNP policies show we "are all part of the support we in society give to each other".

This is the articulation of the Nationalist version of their solidaristic society where a basket of policies guarantee certain rights and values. But we need to ask if they really do this, beyond providing a rhetoric, narrative and chimera of pretending that we are advancing the noble cause of ‘social justice’.

The net effect of redistribution under devolution hasn’t been to target resources on those in poverty or most in need; instead it has targeted monies and attention on middle class professional groups who have known how to work the system and make a fuss. That isn’t really anything to do with ‘social justice’ but a cosy, comforting story that part of Scotland wants to tell itself. It is the soft rhetoric that a great proportion of middle class Scotland wants to wrap its own narrow self-interest and protection in.

Given that 60% of the Scottish Government budget goes on wages and salaries perhaps it would be good to commence a discussion about how this delivers the fairness agenda most of Scotland thinks it is signed up to. Are the Beveridge and Christie reports really the last word in how we do policy innovation?

Lamont has opened up a debate which illustrates the limited choices currently available. There is the fiscal straightjacket of the Scottish Budget with little room for tax raising. Then there is the fundamental weakness of devolution itself – with seemingly little room for the implimentation of new policies.

Crucially, Lamont’s intervention shows Labour happy to talk about expenditure cuts but shows little understanding of tax. Tax has numerous possibilities – redistribution, aiding regulation, or using it to change behaviour or incentivise people: to reduce drinking or start businesses.

Labour is operating a Block Grant conservatism – unable or unwilling to think beyond the current settlement and the great unmentionable – fiscal autonomy.

There is a big issue in all this of how Labour does policy; a concern before the 2011 election and even more so now. The party drew from an incredibly narrow range of expertise in its preparations for the 2011 election manifesto; now it seems the answer for what some have called its ‘cuts commission’ is to turn to arch-devolution sceptic Arthur Midwinter. A party increasingly drawing in on itself, speaking to a narrow circle of advice and opinion, has become part of the problem.

Inherent in Lamont’s statement is, as one commentator said, "a repudiation of 15 years of Labour thinking", given tuition fees and free care for the elderly were previous Labour administration achievements.

What is possible is that it may begin to make explicit a wider debate about the kind of social democracy Scotland wants. Is it one which talks about difficult and hard choices and entails selective targeting? Or is it one which emphasises populism, universalism in a few key areas and a catch-all nature?

Is this a debate we are capable of, or want to have? Part of Scottish politics is dominated by name-calling, labelling and a sense of self-righteousness which seems motivated by living in a bunker, oblivious to detail. Another part of Scotland, of middle class polite conversations, seems content to talk about policy and ideas in the most superficial way and never pause and critically reflect and ask if we really are progressing towards making Scotland that ‘progressive beacon’?

The debate about independence has to rise above the black and white thought police and the pseudo-social democracy of much of public life. It has to be about both constitutional change and social justice, not posing it as being about one or the other in a binary choice.

To do so we need to get honest about what a social justice Scotland involves, what fairness is, and how we propose to help the huge part of Scottish society living in poverty, hardship and insecurity. To begin this we have to address in what way the Scottish social democracy that shapes our politics is different from that of the rest of Britain and how we want to change our nation.

Such an approach would make the independence debate real, relevant and connected to people’s lives. It is not aided by closing down people with insults or feeling self-congratulatory about the state of contemporary Scotland. It is a debate which would challenge all our political parties and philosophies, and it is one which maybe Johann Lamont’s intervention, has opened a door to beginning. If so despite its limitations, she may have done all of us a valuable service. 

About the author
Gerry Hassan is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland who has recently been awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell). His 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' was published in April 2014. His website is: www.gerry.hassan.com