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5 May 2023

Is Scotland finally moving away from welfare for the rich?

The Scottish government’s decision not to extend free school meals to all secondary pupils could mark a turning point.

By Chris Deerin

Is there some unseen, controlling intelligence behind Humza Yousaf’s SNP government, some clever new spad, a senior Labour figure asked me this week. Amid the standard green-left banalities, Yousaf’s administration has made a couple of unexpectedly interesting decisions in its first month or so. It’s difficult to discern whether these are part of some thought-through strategy or just cheap tactics.

The first moment to give pause came with the decision to rejoin the international surveys of education systems – Timss and Pirls, as they are known – which compare performance in maths, science and literacy. The SNP controversially withdrew Scotland from both in 2010, denying us an important benchmark against which school performance could be judged. This always seemed suspicious: if there was nothing to hide, there was nothing to fear. Sure enough, school performance under the nationalists is generally judged to have declined, despite an infuriating absence of hard data.

Rejoining can be seen as a rebuke to Nicola Sturgeon, who steadfastly refused to countenance the idea, and as a relatively simple way of distancing Yousaf from his troubled predecessor. Or perhaps it foreshadows a new era of rigour in education reform – though bitter experience tells us to treat that prospect with a harsh laugh. Either way, the fact the next data set won’t be available until the end of the decade suggests an easy hit with little chance of blowback on the current First Minister and his cabinet.

The second decision came this week, when Deputy First Minister Shona Robison said that although the government intends to introduce free school meals for all primary children, it will not do so for those attending secondary school. “We need to make sure that in a cost-of-living crisis where families are struggling, that the resources go where they are needed the most,” she said. The logic of this is that if you are, say, 11, you need a free school lunch, but if you are 13 you don’t.

Since taking power, the SNP has adopted a policy of creeping universalism towards public services: free university tuition, free prescriptions, free eye tests, free bus travel for the over-60s and the under-22s, free dental care for those under 26, a free baby box for all new parents. A generous view of this is that the party believes the poor are best reached through such an approach, and that it avoids stigmatisation; the more sceptical take is that it is a way for separatists to accentuate difference between an ostensibly generous, caring Scottish nanny state and a heartless, skinflint Westminster.

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[See also: Is Scotland finally moving away from welfare for the rich?]

The argument against universalism is that it amounts to a subsidy for the middle classes and the wealthy, and that means-testing, which targets resources at those who genuinely need it, is the more sensible and effective approach. It is usually the case that what is made free quickly becomes untouchable.

I can only imagine the response of Johann Lamont, the former Scottish Labour leader, to Robison’s explanation that resources must “go where they are needed the most”. In a speech back in 2012, Lamont challenged Scotland’s growing “something for nothing” culture. “What is progressive about a chief executive on more than £100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?” she asked. “What is progressive about judges and lawyers… not paying tuition fees for their child to follow in their footsteps at university, while one in four unemployed young people in Scotland can’t get a job or a place at college?” It was a “cynical trick” and “the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich.”

At the time, Scotland’s leftist establishment, including the SNP, responded ferociously to the speech, which was in fact a brave attempt to begin a national discussion about the best ways to tackle poverty. As a result, any nascent debate was thwarted – so much for the language of priorities being the religion of socialism. Ironically, Robison now finds herself under fire from the same people.

But Lamont was right to raise the issue then and is still right now. An era of austerity and stagnant incomes has made it even more essential that every pound of taxpayers’ money should be made to work as hard as possible to support those struggling most. The SNP’s means-tested Scottish Child Payment was one good way of doing this. But its insistence on universalism in so many areas has sprayed hundreds of millions of pounds at families and individuals who didn’t and don’t really need it. This is ideological stubbornness, not smart governance.

If the nationalists are now bumping against the limits of their hosepipe “generosity”, that is no bad thing – it could be a teachable moment. But of course, Yousaf has already indicated that he plans to further increase taxes on Scots, even though anyone who earns more than £28,000 already pays higher income tax than workers elsewhere in the UK. In SNP land, it seems, there is always more to be plucked, consequence-free, from the public. A reckoning with economic reality is long overdue.

The idea that the Scottish government disburses its £50bn-plus budget wisely – even setting aside obvious examples of waste, such as the ongoing, vastly over-budget ferries scandal – is highly debatable. And the insistence that what is required is ever-higher state spending, even in the absence of meaningful public service reform, is the kind of thinking that has got Scotland into this sorry mess. As Scottish Labour fights its way back towards power, Johann Lamont’s argument is worth a second thought.

[See also: Is Scotland finally moving away from welfare for the rich?]

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