In recent weeks there have been questions from experts and commentators about the sustainability of some of the SNP Government's "freebies", most of which were set in train before the 2008 banking crisis.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont picked up on those doubts in her keynote speech yesterday, announcing a review into popular but expensive policies such as the council tax freeze, free prescriptions and tuition fees. She was right to do so.
Up to now these subjects have been considered politically untouchable, despite doubts from the Labour grassroots about policies that often help the middle classes more than the poorest.
Ms Lamont's critics were quick to accuse her of supporting the Tories by daring to question the universalism on which the welfare state is based. But when Aneurin Bevan sat down to write In Place of Fear, it is unlikely he had it in mind the comfortably off should pay nothing for prescriptions. Is this the best use of £57 million a year in the current climate, when most of those who need them most were receiving them free already? It is certainly a good subject for debate. The same applies to free bus passes, especially for middle class 60-something commuters, though, mindful of the grey vote, Labour appears unwilling to touch them. Free personal care appears safe for the same reason, though, as Ms Lamont points out, nothing is in fact free.
As for the council tax freeze, this was intended as a temporary measure until the now-discredited local income tax could be introduced, even though nearly every developed country taxes wealth in its most obvious manifestation: domestic property. A near decade-long freeze clearly benefits those in large properties most, while the deep cuts in council services that have resulted hit the poorest hardest. And while the current structure of the council tax is regressive, there are ways to tackle that. At a UK level the Liberal Democrats appear to be edging towards extra top bands as an alternative to their proposed mansion tax.
On tuition fees, Labour is on trickier turf. Ms Lamont is right to question why further education colleges have been hit so hard, while higher education has been cushioned. However, in England the prospect of graduating with huge student debt has had a major impact on the level of applications, especially from poorer students.
Scotland needs a debate about creeping universalism during a period of widening inequality. It is also strategically astute. Without it, Scottish politics would be monopolised until autumn 2014 by the independence debate. Nevertheless, she is taking a risk. If Labour ultimately retreats from these tough decisions, it will be accused of bottling it. If it threatens to reverse popular give-aways, it may suffer the political consequences. After all, nobody ever said politics was easy.
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