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At last! Inverted commas now come with “free”

I did not have many stylistic peccadillos in my period as Executive Editor of The Scotsman. But there was one rule for which I was a stickler and which I battled to enforce.

This was that, with such phrases as free prescriptions, or free personal care or free bus passes, always to put inverted commas around the word “free”.

It has become commonplace to use the word free without an indication that the description is of course not to be taken literally. It was certainly quite the thing across many members of the  progressive Scottish commentariat to  treat these benefits as being free in the same way that the air is free, or the weather, and that universal entitlement was not only costless  but beyond debate.

Any attempt to raise the issue of cost – even to mention that these were public goods provided out of taxpayer funds and had to be accounted for - was brushed aside as heartless bean-counting and of course quite the wrong way of looking at such matters. Those who disagreed were looked down upon with disdain. Why, Angus, when Alec’s big finger points tae the moon, only the eejit looks at the finger!

But these benefits are of course, not free at all. And it is the illusion that they are that explains so much that has gone wrong in Scottish politics.

Government here has thrived on the presumption that governments can and should provide as much as possible without charge at the point of use. Politics treated as an auction of benefits has thus given us “free” schools and “free” health; “free” prescriptions and “free” bus passes and “free” university education and “free” personal care. And, in addition to all those free things in order to win votes, it should also provide capital spending on roads and schools and bridges and rail links and tramways: Keynes for all seasons.    

So I applaud Johann Lamont for her courage in pointing out, not just to Alex Salmond, but to many in her own ranks, that these things are not free at all; that their universal provision needs to be examined in the light of continuous assessment of what is equitable as well as what we can afford.

She is brave for this reason. Much of progressive Scotland has forgotten – assuming it ever wholly grasped – that great dictum of Aneurin Bevan, the firebrand Labour Health Minister who brought the NHS into being.  “The language of priorities”, he once thundered to a Labour Party conference, “is the religion of socialism!”

In this Nye Bevan was only half right:  the language of priorities is the religion of all governments, Right as much as Left, and a truth to which the SNP is now becoming slowly wise.

Any doubt that Ms Lamont was exaggerating or may have lost her marbles was dispelled by the entry into the fray last week of the recently retired Auditor General Robert Black who thundered magisterially in The Scotsman on the need for serious debate. 

And lest you thought this was new, or got up the media, the same points – and indeed the same figures – were cited in the Independent Budget Review set up by Alex Salmond no less, with Crawford Beveridge as chairman, and which published its report in 2010.

It cited a submission by Audit Scotland pointing out that “the estimated cost if free personal nursing care, prescriptions, eye tests and concessionary travel is almost £900 million in 2010-11. As the public becomes more accustomed to these services and Scotland’s demographics change, the demand and cost of these services will continue to increase.”

And this was the conclusion of the IBC review panel:

“The Panel believes that the continuing provision of a range of universal services on the same basis as at present is unlikely to be affordable in the face of the projected financial challenges. Alternative approaches should therefore be considered as a matter of urgency.” 

For the record, the Panel set out various options for the administration to consider. For example, the cost of continuing with concessionary travel unchanged would rise from £180 million in 2011-12 to £286 million in 2014-15. The total cost over this period would be £914 million.

Raising the age of entitlement from 60 to 65 would cut this bill by £275 million. Or removing those in full-time employment from eligibility would save £ 42 million. After all, if more of us are working full-time beyond 60 and pulling in a full-time wage, these are hardly helpless pensioners trapped on wee fixed incomes.  

On prescription charges, the introduction of a £5 charge would save the £15 million a year. Reducing free personal care payments to £100 per week would save £120 million. And so on.

All the “free” benefits were costed and as were options to reduce the bill in future years. The report has now been on Alex Salmond’s desk for more than two years. And action taken?  None.

History tells us that it is never too late for reality to be admitted and nettles grasped.

But what it also tells us is that the price of delay keeps going up.