The left in Scotland displays what can only be described as a lust for free stuff: free prescriptions, free eye tests, free school meals, free university education, free winter fuel allowance for the elderly, free bus passes for the elderly, free care for the elderly. Throughout this prolonged period of austerity, as budgets elsewhere have felt the crunch, these handouts have been ferociously guarded. As well as a long-standing council tax freeze, finally relaxed this year, the Scottish National Party made an open-ended pledge during the general election to protect the triple lock on the state pension.
If anything, the hunt has not been for savings, but for more potential giveaways. It might seem from the outside like devolved Scotland has a big heart, but it more often feels like our politicians are simply afraid to annoy anyone.
The problem is not that the poor have access to these services, so much as that the middle class and the wealthy do too – they are are universally available. There seems to be a national allergy to the idea of means-testing, regardless of the fact there are things listed above that the better off would happily pay for, or, if it came to it, should be forced unhappily to stump up for. A promise of a widespread review of universal benefits made in 2012 by the then Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont survived for about five minutes. The consequence is that public money that could be spent on those who truly need it is instead lavished on those who do not. Generous Scandinavian-style services funded by Anglo-Saxon levels of taxation – you really can’t have both.
It’s not just stingy old centrists like me who have a problem with this. Nicola Sturgeon’s poverty adviser Naomi Eisenstadt has warned that Scotland has gone “too far” on the free stuff. “The difficulty is that there is a balance between the bureaucracy in administering means-tested benefits, and sometimes the stigma associated, against how do you spend your money most effectively,” she told the BBC in 2016. “I think we have gone too far in Scotland on the universal side and not far enough on the targeting. I think on the targeting we need to make the culture of public services more respectful and therefore avoid stigma that way.”
Sounds about right. There are senior figures in the Scottish NHS who make much the same case, and point to all the good ideas that are currently unaffordable due to this expensive commitment to universality. The problem is, of course, that it’s easier to give something to people than to take it away. Even though most of the policies mentioned above are relatively new, they are effectively now regarded as birthright by the electorate. It’s a brave politician who steals the lollipop.
So you might expect me to look unkindly on the baby box, the latest free-for-all wheeze from the Scottish government. Following trials in Orkney and Clackmannanshire, new parents across Scotland will from this week begin to receive a large box containing useful items, from scratch mittens and vests to thermometers and nursing pads. The box also doubles as a crib (and comes with blankets, a mattress and a British safety standard). Each, including its contents, costs around £160 and the annual budget is predicted to be around £8 million.
Well, I confess: I kinda like it. The programme is imported from Finland (as covered in this interesting piece by my colleague Julia Rampen), where it has run for almost a century and had a positive impact on infant mortality rates and child health. Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s chief medical officer, said the scheme will be evaluated to see whether it has a similar beneficial outcome. But in 21st century Scotland, where mortality rates are low, that is only one strand.
The boxes are available to all new mothers on request, and although there are concerns that better-off parents will take the expensive bits and dump the rest, I’m not clear why this should be a problem. The box has apparently proven popular as a sleeping place during the pilots – including among mothers who were initially sceptical. Parents are already often given useful odds and sods at the hospital as they prepare to take their baby home for the first time – a more comprehensive and uniform package seems entirely sensible.
Most important of all, it seems to me, is the explicit message that the nation values newborns and their parents, and is willing to offer a helping hand in those difficult, tiring and expensive first months. The birth of a child is a levelling and nerve-wracking moment, regardless of income. It doesn’t seem overly intrusive – unlike Nicola Sturgeon’s odd “named person” policy – for us all to chip in for a starter pack. In fact, it’s a rather romantic gesture.
I’m not one for the”SNP bad” school of thought, where every measure introduced by the Nationalists is automatically dismissed as useless. I do think they’ve made a lot of mistakes, and have been cowardly when it comes to significant public-service reform. But on this occasion, the naysayers come across especially mean-spirited. This scheme is, in effect, a type of early intervention, something we should be much, much better at across the UK. So: welcome to the baby box. And well done, Ms Sturgeon.