UNIVERSALISM: if there is a word of the week, that is it.
The debate was kicked off 10 days ago when Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont questioned whether universal benefits –"freebies" available to rich and poor alike – are affordable in the long term. The speech was the political equivalent of a depth charge and its reverberations continue to rumble.
Then on Tuesday there were hints that the party south of the Border is looking at plans to cut winter fuel payments and other benefits for better-off pensioners and use the savings to help fund social care for the elderly.
Finally, Scotland's widely respected former Auditor General Robert Black has advocated revisiting the current range of free public services, which he believes are unsustainable.
These interventions should be welcomed wholeheartedly. In Scotland the independence debate has been claiming too much of the available political oxygen. Whatever constitutional arrangement Scots choose in 2014, these issues will have to be addressed. Unsustainable levels of government spending in developed countries is a global issue. Scotland is not immune.
For a decade after devolution, with annual 5% uplifts in the budget, the only debate was about what to spend it on. Free personal care, free bus travel and free prescriptions were all popular policies devised and implemented prior to the banking crisis. Now the Scottish Government is being required to implement a 12.5% budget cut, with two-thirds of the pain still to come.
Competitive politics turned the "freebies" into sacred cows, with none of the main parties daring to question them for fear of reprisals at the ballot box. Yet while the middle classes have been big beneficiaries of give-aways, as well as the council tax freeze, cuts in benefits and the desecration of public services are hitting the poorest hardest.
Spending on items like free bus travel for the over-60s, which could rise to £500m a year within a decade, and £150m on free prescriptions and eye tests, have to be met from other sources. There is nothing progressive about feather-bedding millionaire pensioners and the owners of large homes, while services to the poorest are shredded and the fabric of our roads and public buildings left to rot.
The level of debate on these issues so far has been unimpressive. Labour and SNP have simplistically tried to label one another as "tartan Tories" and there have been some personal jibes about the living standards and lifestyles of Scottish Government ministers.
This puerile stuff is self-defeating, though Robert Black is right to observe that MSPs have become too cut off from the way services are delivered in local communities.
The complexity of these issues needs to be reflected in a more mature debate. Creeping universalism makes little sense in an era of austerity and widening inequality. Nye Bevan would be amazed at the notion of free bus travel for all over-60s. The welfare state has always been about rationing and prioritising and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise.
In some cases, including free eye tests, there is a good economic case for universalism. The same may apply to personal care and tuition fees but, if so, we need a pragmatic debate about how to pay for them: not by slashing taxes to stimulate growth and inward investment. That is a certainty. This debate raises important questions about how an independent Scotland would be ruled: questions begging for answers.
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