Let’s get serious about our spending priorities, says IAN SMART

All political parties have some dodgy history, but it has been particularly ironic to see the heirs of Arthur Donaldson and Douglas Young stir themselves into a state of faux hysteria over Ian Davidson’s description of their behaviour as “neo-fascist”. Mind you, I am also a great believer in correct terminology and will undoubtedly try to persuade Ian when we next meet that the correct categorisation was surely post-fascist.

Tuesday’s news cycle was, however, an interesting  illustration of the sophistication of the current SNP media machine. If there has been a worse performance by a minister before a Scottish Parliamentary committee than Roseanna Cunningham’s outing then it has passed me by. Now, Roseanna isn’t a stupid person but even she couldn’t make a coherent case for this wholly unnecessary piece of legislation; unnecessary not because sectarianism  does not need addressed, but rather because, as I said earlier this week, the existing law is more than adequate to the necessary task while the attempt to “improve” it has left us in the farcical situation where the Lord Advocate has to correct the junior justice minister’s suggestion that you might get five years in the jail for singing the national anthem!

The political wolves were circling until suddenly an obscure parliamentary exchange at Westminster was pushed to the forefront of political discourse not by virtue of its newsworthiness  but by the emphasis the Nats put into persuading the media  that this, rather than a particularly incoherent  example of the actual “Government” of Scotland was the issue of the hour. All credit to them.

Somebody did after all say that successful government was 10 per cent achievement and 90 per cent presentation but, since that person was Achille Starace, Mussolini’s Party Secretary, I am happy to take the Nats at their word that this forms no part of their current  thinking.

Meanwhile, our own party’s thinking shows some genuine signs of life.

John McTernan and Eric Joyce are right wing bastards; even in these desperate days, I see no need for our party breaking its historic predeliction for being rude to each other. I was therefore intensely irritated to find myself nodding vigorously in assent  with much in each of their  recent articles for LabourHame. For the record, I should say that I still think John is quite wrong, both in principle and in electoral result, when he suggests that  we continue to politicise criminal justice policy, while Eric is wrong about… well, nothing particularly in this article but since I never entirely agree with him I must have missed something.

It was a strategic error for Labour last month to try to match the SNP’s spending promises and tax freezes. Until we did, there was an appreciation in Scotland that there was no such thing as a free lunch. Suddenly, it appeared that the people of Scotland’s instincts were being denied not only by the current administration – who at least had the fall-back position that if it had to be paid for it was only because we were not living in the Nirvana of an independent Scotland – but also by the Labour Party. I still have no idea how Iain Gray expected to pay for continued free higher education, free personal care, free prescription charges, free bus travel for the over sixties, a national living wage in the public sector,  no A&E rationalisation, the Glasgow Airport rail link… oh, and a three-year council tax freeze as well, not to mention any number of smaller promises. When I say I had no idea, actually he had no idea and Scotland had no idea; it simply added to the impression that this was a party not really serious about government. The only savings we proposed were “efficiency savings” but even these were to be achieved without any compulsory redundancies!

Now, you will say, the SNP promised all these things as well – and more – and they won. True. But they had two other factors on their side: firstly, by disguising the fact that this had been delivered during the previous four years through a benign public spending cycle, they created the impression that they might carry off this act of prestidigination for a longer period. But, secondly, they knew that when the train did  hit the buffers they, at least,  would have somebody to blame: the evil Tory English “bankers”. Indeed it would positively suit their agenda to do so. We had no such fall-back position, so these were promises that we should not have made in the first place, or at least not all of them.

It was Nye Bevan (more, I suspect my type of Labour politician than John’s or Eric’s) who said that the language of priorities was the religion of socialism. So let’s start preaching that religion once again. I do believe that a different attitude to education pervades between Scotland and England. It is for us a right and not a privilege. So let’s make that a priority but let’s not pretend it’s free. And let’s recognise the equal Scottish tradition that those with an education should put their learning back at the disposal of society  and to help others to follow them. The difference between tuition fees and the Graduate Endowment is not and was not an academic one. And the return of the graduate endowment to enable our great universities to enjoy the public subsidy required to enable them to continue to function properly, without tuition fees, is an argument we should have been prepared to make.

It is absurd that we are maintaining that those fit and well enough to work beyond sixty should nonetheless be entitled to travel about on free buses, picking up free medication on route, even if their ultimate destination is a day’s work as senior partner of a blue chip Edinburgh Law firm.

And local government does an essential job: it educates our children, looks after us in our dotage, empties our bins, cuts the grass in our parks and protects from any number of environmental risks. Sure, it might not do so as efficiently as Tesco, but even at Tesco prices do go up. It was an act of monumental cowardice for us not to be prepared to make that argument.

So, starting point for our policy rethink? Money does not grow on trees. It wouldn’t in an independent Scotland where, in very small print indeed, the SNP themselves concede there would still be a deficit to be addressed, and it certainly won’t in devolved Scotland over the next five years.

It will be difficult for us to credibly advance the “We told you so” argument, given that we didn’t, but that’s nonetheless where we need to go. Better late than never.

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. He swears too much. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.