Jimmy Reid Foundation: ‘Universal Benefits probably Scottish Parliament’s greatest achievement’


  By Bob Duncan
A new report on the case for universalism is “a positive and substantial contribution to debate”, say the SNP who describe it as it as “a repudiation of Labour’s Cuts Commission”.
Reacting to the publication of the Jimmy Reid Foundation report, which describes the defence of universalism as “probably the single greatest achievement of the Scottish Parliament”, the SNP have said that independence is now the only way to protect the achievements of devolution.

In September, Labour leader Johann Lamont signalled a policy shift by calling for an end to a “something for nothing” culture, claiming taxes will have to rise or services will be cut to maintain popular but expensive SNP pledges on areas such as the council-tax freeze and free tertiary education and prescriptions.

Lamont announced the creation of a Labour cuts commission to look into which universal benefits should be means tested or abolished altogether. This commission will report back its findings in 2015, after the proposed date for the independence referendum.

Earlier this year in a speech announcing the Scottish Labour party’s shift to the right, she said:

“I want Labour to lead the debate about how we intend to look after our rising number of older people, how we accommodate people’s desire to have their own home, how to ensure that we can afford to pay for people’s pensions.
“How do we address the current unjust imbalance that exists between the funding of higher and further education; we need to be honest about the sustainability of ‘free’ higher education, and the impact it will have on academic standards.”

However, the Reid Foundation report comes down very heavily in favour of universalism and is highly critical of Scottish Labour’s position.  The following key conclusions are among those drawn in the report:

  • universalism is incredibly efficient – the selective element of pension entitlement is more than 50 times more inefficient than the universal element measured in terms of fraud and error alone and without even taking into account the cost of administration;
  • the economic impact of universalism is much greater than the economic impact of selectivity because of the multiplier profile of expenditure;
  • on virtually every possible measure of social and economic success, all league tables are topped by societies with strong universal welfare states;
  • it is impossible to disentangle redistributive tax and universalism – if universalism is reduced, redistributive taxation is reduced and visa versa;
  • selectivity and universalism are elements of two entirely different political philosophies – universalism inextricably linked to the European Social Model, selectivity inextricably linked to US neoliberalism;
  • wherever we find a move from universalism to selectivity we find privatisation and corporate profiteering, often at the expense of those least able to bear the impact.

In particular, and in line with SNP policy, the report states: “The evidence is strong that an inclusive Scotland is consistent with the economically-sound welfare state of the Nordic countries. The economic argument is made by their economic performances over a prolonged period”.

It continues: “Those societies which embed universalism into their welfare systems are the most successful on whichever performance index is chosen, including economic growth, prosperity and competitiveness.

“There is a clear and established causal link between equality and sustainable and sustained economic development, and universal benefits are the bedrock of all the European societies who lead the rankings which measure economic success in particular.

“The experiences of the Nordic countries demonstrate that, far from universal benefits being unaffordable or not the way forward for competitive economies, the reverse is true. Cohesion and inclusion are the hallmarks of these societies and the promotion and building of social capital and equality are elemental in sustaining their individual and collective prosperity.”

Commenting, SNP MSP Bruce Crawford said:

“The Jimmy Reid Foundation Report is a positive and substantial contribution to the debate – and is a repudiation of Labour’s Cuts Commission, which is about abolishing universal policies in Scotland such as free personal care for elderly people, no tuition fees for young people, and free prescriptions for ill people.

“These achievements of devolution are all under threat of being rolled back if Scotland votes No – as the report says, the ‘devolutionary contract appears to be reaching an end’.

“That is why a Yes vote in 2014 for an independent Scotland is vital, so that we can protect and build on the gains of the Scottish Parliament, and build a fair society and strong economy.”