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We’ve had the debate: universalism won

If Scottish Labour wants to open up a debate on universalism, I welcome it. It’ll be a brief debate and universalism will win. Again.

What would we have done without Johann Lamont ‘opening up a debate’ about reducing universal welfare provision? British politics would presumably be bereft of anyone willing to argue against a strong welfare state. If it hadn’t been for her we’d probably have had to go back in time to 1979 and make sure that a right-wing government had 18 years to try and dismantle the universal welfare state. Then we’d need to travel to 1997 to give another right-of-centre government another 13 years to implement an agenda of further means-testing and ‘co-payment’.

We’d need to devise a largely right-wing media to hammer away at ‘benefit scroungers’ for decades. We’d need to establish a plethora of right-wing think tanks to undermine the principles of universalism. We’d need to manufacture an entire finical services sector to devise new financial models for the public sector which account for the users of universal services as if they were ‘customers’ in a ‘market’. We’d need to build a company base of ‘service contractors’ ready to reap the benefits of the means-testing involved or there would be nobody to poke and prod the disabled to see if they qualify.

Yup, if it hadn’t been for Johann there would be no debate on universalism at all.

In the Victorian period there were two broad approaches to the problems of social failure – laissez-faire and selectivity. One group of people felt that the travails of the weakest are their own problem, the other thought that providing assistance to those most in need was a moral duty. We can call this brutality and charity. The very point of the Labour movement was that this was a false dichotomy – that the place of a worker in society is neither to suffer according to the failures the markets place on them or to be gifted relief from above according to the whims of the rich. In fact, being part of society makes you part of a wider social contract that imparts on you certain rights as a human. This is the start of the welfare state. This is the fundamental principle of universalism.

It is important to understand this properly – these rights to a place in society are rights for all. These are not rights you gain only when you become some sort of social failure (that’s the selective charity doctrine). You are due them because you are part of humanity. If you are ill, you should be cared for. There is no need to ask how much you earn before you are healed because it doesn’t matter, any more than a police officer should ask you your income before investigating a crime committed against you.

There are two massive benefits of universalism  – and that is a debate that it would be helpful if we’d actually open up. First,universalism is incredibly efficient. Just look at the US healthcare sector, a staggeringly inefficient mess of a system. Then look at the NHS. That alone should make the case. The administration required of a selective system is inherently inefficient. We’ve heard endless statements about the £60-odd million cost of free prescriptions. So what about the £30-odd-million cost of administering the means tested system? If we go back to selective means testing we pay £30m to take another £60m out of the pockets of ordinary people. Again, in case the numbers aren’t sinking in yet, under universalism the public pays £60m for prescriptions and under means testing they pay £90m – £30m for the administration needed to take the other £60m out their pockets in prescription charges. It cannot be said enough; tax is highly efficient and very fair, means testing is highly inefficient and often very unfair.

Benefit two of universalism is even more important – it holds society together. Let me just keep on down the same road as Ms Lamont; I very rarely find myself going to Ayr and never from the Glasgow direction. Why should I pay for the A77? Or what about the B778 or B785? I might easily go my whole life without need of them. Somewhere on the B785 will live a man with a lot more money than me. Why should I on my very modest salary pay for his road? In fact, I live in a very low crime part of rural Scotland. Why should I even pay for the police to protect rich people from theft by poor people?

The answer is more than obvious – because down that road lies only barbarism. Universalism means that whomever you are, at whatever moment someone asks, if you need it, its there for you. You don’t have to beg and become an object of ridicule and victimisation. You don’t have to wear a sign saying ‘I’m a failure, please help me because I’m so very useless as a human’. Or let’s for a second consider the idea of ‘difficult choice’, something you’d think only politicians ever have to face. Well no, I’ll tell you a difficult choice. You have earache. It’s really unpleasant but it’s not life-threatening and probably it will go away. You’re not poor but it’s been a tight month financially. Why not just stick it out and see if the earache goes away? If you go to the doctor antibiotics and an ear drop are going to set you back £12. That constitutes a full day of meals for a family of three on middle income. On my income right now, I think I’d give it a number of days of discomfort before going for medical help. That not only stigmatises the poor, it puts up a barrier to people separating them from that sense of security.

But what about the rich? Why should they get a free bus pass? Because they too are humans and part of society. The day I refuse to help someone who is hurt because they are wealthy (or because I think they are) is the day I become less than what I should be. The same applies to society. The thing about this pitiful ‘debate’ that annoys me most is that it takes welfare to be ripe for endless dismantling but assumes that tax is untouchable. It is the trick that makes this possible – fix one point solid and force the other to move. Not a peep from Scottish Labour on tax. And then it wants applause for bravery?

So a quick recap on what I consider to be the highest principle of civilisation yet achieved: from each according to ability to pay to each according to need. That, in a nutshell, is the principle that makes me ‘left’. You won’t get me to march behind a banner which says “from each according to treasury guidelines to each according to sloganeering”.

And that’s the crux of the matter in Scotland – neither will anyone else in any great number. I cannot make this clear enough – Ms Lamont is utterly wrong. We’ve had this debate; we’ve had it endlessly. Universalism won, selectivity lost. In Scotland (outside the commentariat) there is no desire to roll back the universal welfare state. The population has had plenty of opportunity to do so – at no point has it not been a democratic option in Scotland. But it didn’t choose it. The right wing has never really accepted the difference between having a debate and winning a debate.

This is a dead end for Scottish Labour, not because everything Johann Lamont said is wrong but because the reasons she gave are hideously wrong. There is a line to be drawn on where universalism ends – even I don’t think fizzy drinks should be ‘free for all’. But the reasons to draw the line have got nothing at all with fake class war and everything to do with sensible social choices. Health matters, education matters, social infrastructure matters, society becomes better if they are available free from fear for all. Fizzy drinks don’t matter, society gains nothing by making them free. There is a debate in the middle – I personally think that the price of access to sports charged by local authorities is too high and I think there is a strong case for social benefit purposes in making it more affordable. I’m not sure I think it should be free in current contexts, but I think it would be good if it could be. However, whether ‘rich people’ might make use of it has nothing to do with my reasoning at all.

I agree with her points on the Council Tax freeze and on over-provision of poor quality apprenticeships. But not because they benefit the rich. And not because she claims they are unaffordable. Almost anything is affordable if there is the will. Even a crazily-expensive nuclear weapons system. And in any case, they are being afforded.

Let’s have a brief debate about universalism. It won’t take long. The arguments against are not only hopelessly weak they are hopelessly unpopular. We’ve had the debate before and the universalists won because they speak to what is best in humanity and to self interest of all at the same time. The selectivists speak to social disunity and the self interest of one against the other. And remember, the selectivists have still to explain why society should pay £90m for something that costs £60m.

Once that debate is lost yet again, what then? Will we get a debate that moves to the tax part of the problem or will we be stuck with this ill-informed garbage indefinitely? The Labour movement was there to offer an alternative to brutality and charity. How did it come to forget this? I seldom make solid predictions (not in print anyway – people can find them…) but I will on this occasion. Yet again universalism will win and that can only mean Scottish Labour and the Scottish Tories will lose. And not because we are all in it for the hope of a free bus pass but because we are a much better society than one which is built on charity.

Robin McAlpine