So, who saw that coming? Johann Lamont, leader of Scottish Labour, just abandoned over a century of Labour values in a single speech. More so even than Tony Blair did when he set light to Clause 4 in the name of “New Labour”, Lamont made a bonfire of pretty much the entire set of founding principles of social democracy. Because, as George Eaton succinctly put it in today’s New Statesman:
“universal public services, to which all contribute and from which all benefit, are the essence of social democracy. Once this principle is abandoned, greater cuts will inevitably follow as the rich, no longer receiving, have less incentive to give (you could call it “nothing for something”). For this reason, as Richard Titmuss sagely observed, “services for the poor will always be poor services””
And let’s make no mistake: what Johann Lamont did yesterday was consign the entire notion of universal services to the dustbin of history. Because if you accept her argument that universal services mean “the poorest pay for the tax breaks for the rich”, then you inescapably also accept that they’re a fundamentally, inherently bad thing whether a country can afford them or not.
Is it EVER good to have the poor subsidise the rich? You’d have a job finding even the most extreme right-wing Tory prepared to say such a thing out loud, so Johann certainly isn’t going to, and that means that all universal services must go, because every one of them is subject to the same “unfairness”. (In the perverted modern sense of the word.) Every service provided free to a person who could afford to pay for it themselves must by definition rob the poor to do so.
So it’s a big cheerio to the NHS, the proud and defining achievement of the Labour movement. Because the NHS – free to every single citizen at the point of use – is the ultimate universal service. (The coalition government is already frantically dismantling and privatising it, hoping to reach a point of no return before anyone notices.) But in conceding the principle of universality, on the twisted grounds that it’s unfair to the poor, Labour has no ideological ground left from which to defend the NHS.
Citing the Beveridge Report, Lamont asserted that “the principle of universality in the delivery of many of our public services may simply be no longer affordable”. Surrendering universality goes even further than that, though, because universality is the basis for almost all taxation.
The deepest, darkest central tenet of Conservatism, rarely spoken aloud, is that there should be no taxation at all except for defence and policing. Everything else should be the individual’s responsibility. Medical treatment? Get health insurance. Education? Pay to send your children to private schools. Old age? Save for a private pension.
After all, Tory thinking runs, how is it fair that a person with no children has to pay taxes to educate other people’s kids? How is it fair that having worked and saved to buy a car, they should be taxed to provide public transport for the feckless? How is it fair that someone who’s earned the money for gym membership and a personal trainer should pay out again to build a public swimming pool for the less well-rewarded?
(Because in the Tory belief system, it’s an article of faith that all salaries, whether high or low, are self-evidently a measure of merit. It doesn’t matter that society would miss a nurse or a sewage worker or a street-cleaner a thousand times more than it would miss a hedge-fund manager or a currency speculator, the fact that the former are paid a tiny fraction as much means, by definition, that they’re the bottom-feeders in the ecosystem of humanity and don’t deserve to enjoy the same lifestyle as the latter.)
Taxation, then, can only be justified on the basis of universality, because otherwise the wealthy have no reason to contribute. Yet that exact sociopathic, selfish mindset is what Johann Lamont irrevocably signed Scottish Labour up to yesterday. (The UK party, of course, caved in on it years ago.) And for what great and glorious purpose was this terrible sacrifice? As it turns out, it was for nuclear weapons.
On last night’s Scotland Tonight, presenter John MacKay admirably pressed Lamont time and again for her closely-guarded views on the UK’s Trident system (from around 10 minutes into that clip). Lamont doggedly waffled and dodged and filibustered her way out of providing a straight answer (as she did on every other question, refusing to even promise any alternatives to SNP policies for over two years), but eventually revealed – via some weasel words about the employment provided by the bases – that she’d be toeing the UK Labour line on retaining and replacing the weapon system.
An independent Scotland’s defence bill, without Trident, would be in the region of £1.5bn a year lower than the amount currently contributed by Scottish taxpayers to that end (according to Professor Malcolm Chalmers, the director of UK Defence Policy Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and a UK government adviser). That annual £1.5bn saving would by itself easily plug the projected funding gap in Scottish universal public services for decades.
But instead, Johann Lamont wants to sacrifice the last scrap of the Labour movement once stood for, in order to preserve a fleet of useless, pointless weapons of mass destruction. If there’s ever been a greater betrayal of the last 112 years of struggle by ordinary working people, we can’t bring it to mind.