People in Glass Houses…
This is, I’m afraid, the first SNP Conference I’ve had to miss in some time, but I do feel somewhat re-assured by the fact that one tradition around it still goes ahead.
And I’m not talking about the karaoke – instead, I’m talking about the brief hysteria that whirls around the Scottish LibDem blogosphere. It usually surrounds how the SNP are illiberal for, you know, having policies and trying to do things, and should be booted out forthwith, even if the alternative would be Iain Gray, who is not regarded as a bastion of liberalism.
This year, they’ve rounded on the SNP’s aim to reduce prescription charges, ultimately to zero, decrying this universal benefit at a time of financial constraint. They’ve also dredged up figures they put out last year because no one seems to done any analysis since then, but that’s by the by.
In a way, I sympathise with the actual argument: yes, there’s less money to go around and yes, there are people who could afford prescription costs. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is, in principle, a fair and decent way of doing things. But there are many who can’t afford the costs – it’s not just the government that’s feeling the pinch; it’s the people – and this raises two questions. Firstly, should everyone have access to medication if they need it, regardless of ability to pay? Well, let me put it this way, if you answered ‘No’ to that one, you basically just answered in favour of the abolition of the NHS. Secondly, if medicine should be accessible to all, should free access to it through the state also be universal, or should it be means-tested?
And of course, means-testing then creates a massive, expensive bureaucracy, just at the time of financial constraint. And for access to prescriptions, it also entails either people filling out a form on a regular basis then being given a card that says “I’M POOR!!!!” every time they go to the chemist, or having to submit themselves to a detailed background check just for a course of antibiotics. So on that basis, the blunt instrument of a universal benefit is as efficient as it’s going to get.
It’s certainly more sensible than the plan by the UK Government to make child benefit neither universal nor means-tested. While this is an extreme (and, I daresay, highly unlikely) example, if a household has just one income of £44,000.01, that family wouldn’t get the benefit. But if a household had a combined income of £87,999.98, with both earners contributing £43,999.99 each, they would be entitled to it. Now, as I say, the chances of that coming up are remote, but there will be some awful (and unfair) anomalies. I wouldn’t like to be supporting a party in the UK Government right now. Would Liberal Democrats?
Then there’s higher education. Again, at a time of constraint, and when the job market is massively competitive (there are, after all, fewer to go around), people need the edge of additional education. So this is not a great time to be lifting, much less, removing the cap on tuition fees. And who’s responsible for the Government Department that handles higher education? One Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat once lauded as the sage of the economic crisis. To exacerbate the situation, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is likely to face a 20%+ budget cut, more than double the 10% per department targeted by the Treasury team consisting primarily of Tory Chancellor George Osborne and LibDem Chief Secretary Danny Alexander. Defence, on the other hand, has benefited from personal intervention by the PM, and escapes with only an 8% cut. DBIS, it seems, has received no intervention from either the PM or his LibDem Deputy.
So while LibDem bloggers complain that the SNP Government is one for the rich (tell you what, let’s add the £2,000 Graduate Endowment to student debt again, put prescription prices back up to £7, charge commuters for crossing the Forth or the Tay again and jack up the Council Tax by three years’ worth of increases and see how well the working and middle classes do then, shall we?), their own party is busy supporting a Government which wants to implement a crazy system of distributing cash benefit, and price all but the wealthiest out of higher education.
And of course, there would have been a brilliant, water-tight way for honest, decent, reasonable LibDem priorities to be secured in the Scottish budget: for their MSPs to have engaged constructively with the SNP after the election rather than going into a sulk, then to have engaged sensibly at every Budget negotiation, rather than, as in 2009, demanding the blatantly impossible, storming out of meetings when they didn’t get it, then blaming everyone else for not being grown up when the Budget fell.
So they’ve missed every opportunity since 2007 to get their principles and priorities implemented at Holyrood, while at Westminster, they’re now tied into policies that fly right in the face of what they claim to believe.
Perhaps this year, they ought to quit while they’re behind.