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Scottish Labour's support for cuts plays into the SNP's hands

Johann Lamont's echo of Conservative rhetoric - "something for nothing" - was a disastrous way to begin the debate.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said that Scotland could not be "the only something for nothing country in the world". Photograph: Getty Images.

At the last Scottish Parliament election in 2011, Labour pledged not to reverse popular SNP policies such as free university education, free NHS prescriptions and the council tax freeze. But in a speech in Edinburgh yesterday, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont signalled a change of direction, declaring that Scotland could not be "the only something for nothing country in the world" and calling into question the future of those benefits. She said:

I know that there are families, working hard, on above average incomes who feel they pay enough and are attracted by policies likefree prescriptions, free tuition fees and the council tax freeze.

I know where they are coming from.

But I ask them to look at how they are paying for those free things. What price your free prescription when an elderly relative spends five hours on a trolley in A&E, or the life-saving drug they need isn’t available at all?

What price free tuition fees when your neighbour can’t get a place at college, or when university standards are now lower than when they went to uni?

What price the council tax freeze, when your parents care is cut, and your child’s teachers cannot give them the materials they need because there is a ban on something as simple as photocopying.

With growth likely to remain anaemic or non-existent, few will dispute that there is a reasonable debate to be had about the services the state should provide and how they should be paid for. But with her provocative support for cuts, Lamont has fallen into a giant SNP elephant trap.

The speech itself was considerably more nuanced than most of the headlines suggest, but her echo of Conservative rhetoric - "something for nothing" - has allowed Alex Salmond's party to present itself as the defender of the poor against a Labour Party dedicated to savage cuts. Rather than implying that cuts were inevitable, Lamont should have presented voters with a choice: higher taxes or lower spending? In fact, she did just that, stating "if we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere. If we do not confront these hard decisions soon, then the choice will be taken from us when we will be left with little options." But the provocative language elsewhere in the speech meant any nuance was lost.

In challenging the concept of universal benefits, Lamont has underestimated the strong body of popular support that exists for them. "What is progressive about a banker on more than 100,000 a year benefitting more than a customer on average incomes from the council tax freeze?,"  she declared. But universal public services, to which all contribute and from which all benefit, are the essence of social democracy. Once this principle is abandoned, greater cuts will inevitably follow as the rich, no longer receiving, have less incentive to give (you could call it "nothing for something"). For this reason, as Richard Titmuss sagely observed, "services for the poor will always be poor services". If Lamont is not to alienate many of her party's natural supporters, she should reassure them that she still recognises as much.