George Osborne in a kilt.

No, it's not a very attractive image with which to start the day, but that was how John Swinney, the SNP Finance Secretary, described the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, after she announced her "cuts commission" into expendable social spending. I'm not sure I can really see Ms Lamont in a kilt either, come to think of it.

But I've certainly never seen a speech like this from a Labour leader in opposition. It is very rare for a politician to promise cuts before they reach office. Normally the name of the game is to attract voters, not alienate them by promising to axe popular policies you campaigned for in previous elections, such as the abolition of university tuition fees. This is Nick Clegg without the apology.

I don't know about kilts, but Ms Lamont has courage, there's no denying that. A BBC survey of 1000 voters on the eve of last year's Scottish parliamentary elections showed the abolition of university tuition fees was the third most popular policy in Scotland. Number two was increasing the number of police on the beat, the cost of which Ms Lamont also questioned in her declaration of war on universalism. And the council tax freeze, which she said is unaffordable, came in at number six, while free prescription charges – also facing the Lamont axe – were number 10 on the policy pop charts. It looks as if the Scottish Labour leader has gone through the list of the most popular policies in Scotland and decided to dump the lot. All she needs to do now is abolish free personal care and bus passes and she wins the teddy bear.

Ms Lamont's aides were insisting yesterday the latter two policies are unlikely to be targeted in the review to be headed by the academic Professor Arthur Midwinter. But I can't see why they should be exempt. If Labour is proposing to save money by ending universal benefits, then you might think free personal care and bus passes would be high on the list. I suspect Prof Midwinter may have views on this too.

Ms Lamont insisted yesterday her new policy agenda was not a manifesto. But I can't think of anything else to call it, unless it is the second longest suicide note in history.

She described Scotland as the "only something-for-nothing country in the world", as if it was an episode of television's Shameless. Universal benefits are no longer going to be universal. The money just isn't there any more, and anyway it's wrong for wealthy people to benefit from things like free prescription charges when they could pay for them.

She said: "[The SNP] might cry freedom, but the idea that Scotland is a land where everything is free is a lie." She should know because her party voted to abolish prescription charges in the Scottish Parliament and voted for free personal care and promised not to increase tuition fees in the 2011 election campaign. Labour were living a lie, it seems. So how do you tell when they aren't?

Anyway, is it a lie? There is a presumption that universal policies are unfair and regressive. But it is often fairer and more efficient for services to be paid for centrally through general taxation, which is itself based on ability to pay. Free prescription charges, for example, cost £57 million, a relatively small sliver of the £34 billion Scottish budget, but up to half of that saving will be lost through the cost of constructing a new bureaucracy to manage the transition and identify and collect from those who are to pay in future. The nugatory savings from bus passes or the winter fuel allowance are hardly going to pay off the national debt. Free personal care for elderly people is expensive at a cost of £360m, but much of this is saved in the NHS by helping keep older people independent in their own homes rather than occupying beds in hospitals. And surely she isn't seriously proposing to impose tuition fees in Scotland after what has happened in England.

These are fair and humane policies and the Scottish Labour party should not be so eager to abandon them. Nor are they all Nationalist "freebies". Indeed, the former Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, once cited free personal care as the policy he is most proud of after the smoking ban. Is there anything in Ms Lamont's policy treasure chest to match that? Is she going to be proud of restoring prescription charges? Will people cheer her on the street for re-introducing tuition fees?

Alex Salmond is often accused of political opportunism, of making crowd-pleasing giveaways. But voters respond positively to these policies because they agree with them and there is nothing wrong with governing in accordance with the popular will. Voters like universal benefits for a reason: they hate means tests, which many people regard as demeaning in a civilised society. Universal benefits are efficient because people don't have to go through the complex and bureaucratic process of claiming them, which is why they are a good way of delivering national objectives.

Most Scots believe access to higher education should be based on ability, not ability to pay. And the freebies are clearly affordable because they have been delivered by the Scottish Government within the strict confines of the Barnett bloc grant.

But the greatest objection to Ms Lamont's proposed cuts is that they will not save much money. A few hundred million is not going to butter anyone's parsnips: 60% of Scottish public spending goes on the salaries and pensions of public sector workers. The most direct way to cut spending is by cutting the size of the state bureaucracy, starting with those highly paid council officials, and Ms Lamont is not proposing that.

What she is proposing has left commentators such as Alex Massie in the Tory-supporting Spectator cock-a-hoop at what they see as Ms Lamont's conversion.

But how are poor Labour candidates going to sell this on the doorsteps: "Good day, I am your Labour candidate and I stand for keeping bobbies off the beat, increasing your council tax, making granny pay for her prescriptions and making your children pay £9000 a year to go to university. Can I rely on your vote?"