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People in Glass Houses…

17/10/2010

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.

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From → Politics

5 Comments
  1. caronlindsay permalink

    Hang on a minute – you’ve made a few assumptions from my blog post about prescription charges and the Council Tax Freeze.

    First of all, the Lib Dem Scottish conference last weekend emphatically rejected an amendment to a motion filed by 2 students calling for a graduate contribution as a solution to the uni funding problem. Our education spokesperson Margaret Smith spoke passionately against that, so don’t claim that Lib Dems at Holyrood back the proposals down south. I am and always have been of the opinion that education should not be bought and sold as a commodity and I’m concerned that if we go down the 30 year grad contribution path, we’re going to end up with a time bomb 50 years down the road because people won’t have been able to save for their retirement.

    Re Child Benefit, I share your concerns and I think there are strong arguments for universality but I’m prepared to reluctantly support what the coalition are doing on the basis that it’s better than putting an age limit on it which would affect the poorest very badly.

    And re prescription charges, I feel really strongly that I shouldn’t be getting free prescriptions at a time when nurses in Grampian are being asked to work an extra shift for no extra pay. I was appalled at Alex Salmond’s defence of that at FMQs the other week. He clearly has no idea that most nurses are women, many are likely to have extra child care costs so will be penalised if those changes go through.

    Ultimately the drugs I need for my condition would cost me per month the equivalent of a glass of wine in an Edinburgh pub. I think there are better uses for that money when there isn’t enough public money to go around.

    You can’t get away from the fact that the SNP have been doing more for the very rich than for the poorest and that’s not a good thing in my opinion.

    • Thanks for your reply, Caron, though I wasn’t taking aim at a specific blog post, least of all yours – there were a number and I was addressing the general thrust of them all.

      Firstly, in terms of Scottish LibDem policy, I understand and respect that the Scottish LibDems and LibDem MSPs do not want to implement or raise fees. That’s a good thing. But what you have to face up to is that the Liberal Democrats in Government – and remember that it’s a Scottish Liberal Democrat MP in the Treasury team – are signing up to a spending policy and tuition fee approach that is the opposite of what you want. I’ve seen the exasperation and anger coming from yourself and others across the UK about this, but the fact remains that when Liberal Democrats at Westminster are cutting benefits and hiking fees, it becomes less credible for the party to say it’s the prime defender of fairness at Holyrood.

      Re child benefit, all I’m going to say is that if you’re prepared to grit your teeth and support a complete dog’s breakfast of a proposal that manages to combine the worst elements of universality and means testing rather than the best, then good luck with that. I suspect you’ll need it.

      And I already said that I sympathise with the prescription charge argument, but by bringing in Iain Gray’s misrepresentation of the NHS Grampian position into the equation – they’re working the same hours for the same pay – you’ve created a false dichotomy. And means testing isn’t practical – and again, watch for consistency: if it isn’t practical for child benefit it isn’t practical for prescriptions – so the fairest solution is a universal benefit. If I have to choose between the wealthy making a saving and the less well-off having to stump up, I choose the former as the less bad option.

      Yes, it means that everyone – including those who don’t need them – enjoy the benefits. But SNP policies have ensured that there are benefits for everyone to enjoy: talking about the rich is one thing, but you forget that all people, particularly hard working families on low to middle incomes, gain a little relief from the Council Tax freeze, from the cut in prescription charges, from the abolition of bridge tolls, from the end of the graduate endowment. Rich AND poor win when the local A&E is kept open. Are the Liberal Democrats sufficiently petty that they’d stop real, genuine advances because people who they deem undeserving might take advantage of them as well as those in need?

      Is it LibDem policy to smite the poor, to spite the rich? Because that, I’m afraid, is what it looks like.

      • A bit of a change from the usual sober analysis. I like the anger – I’ve been feeling it too – but don’t let the s.a. fall by the wayside.

  2. Well, it’s always nice to shift gears occasionally, especially when we find ourselves being lectured about progressive politics by the LibDems – if anything’s certain to get me in a rage right now, it’s that – but worry not, the analysis is on the way…

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  1. “Spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night…” – Scottish Roundup

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