Alex Salmond believes last month’s speech by Johann Lamont was a game-changer. In it, the Labour leader in Scotland argued that many of the universal benefits currently enjoyed by Scots are not affordable in the long-term. Attacking what she called the “something for nothing” culture, she said:
But if the devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world he didn’t exist, Salmond’s most cynical trick was to make people believe that more was free, when the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich.
She picked on four things she believed should be scrapped: the council tax freeze, free personal care for the elderly, free prescriptions and free university education.
The SNP was delighted. This proved, they argued, that Labour was tacking right, arguing for the same cuts agenda as the Tories. Alex Neil, the Scottish health secretary, called it Lamont’s “speech of madness”. In his keynote speech, Salmond said:
These are the fruits not just of this party or this government, but the fruits of a Scottish Parliament that chose to reflect our nation in these ways.
It is the social contract between our Parliament and our people.
Some call it universality and say its time has passed. I call it human decency and its time is now.
But interestingly, Salmond made another argument, which when pushed, doesn’t fit with the narrative that the SNP will protect universal benefits.
The SNP leader argued that the only way to protect this “social contract” was not to vote SNP at the Holyrood elections, but to vote for an independent Scotland, with control of its own budget.
I asked a party adviser whether that meant an SNP government in Edinburgh could not be relied upon to guarantee such benefits. The person replied:
At the moment, we afford these items from a fixed budget and we make it work. But who knows what is going to happen in four, five, ten years’ time?
The answer is telling, and if it is to be believed, the SNP can no more guarantee these items of spending than can Labour. The only difference is that Labour is being more honest about it.