One of the most bizarre manifestations of Labour’s tribalism (in terms of opposing Scottish Government policy simply because it is proposed by the SNP, regardless of whether or not it is coincident with supposed Labour principles) is Johann Lamont’s opposition to the policies put into place to help support people. Free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly, free higher education, even free bus travel for pensioners – all are railed against, as part of a ‘something for nothing culture’.
The NHS in Scotland has always been independent from the rest of the NHS (in England and Wales, accountable to the Secretary of State for Health) from its formation in July 1948 (when it was accountable directly to the Secretary of State for Scotland), although this is regularly obscured by the ‘No’ campaign, in order to portray a potential change in status with independence, that is not actually real. If one was to believe that the opposition of Lamont’s Labour Party in Scotland was actually on principle rather than purely tribal, it would indeed be hard to envisage them doing anything other than opposing Clem Attlee’s government when they originally brought the Scottish National Health Service into being.
Because it is tribal, this philosophy demands homogenization across the UK – not by raising the rest of the UK up, but by lowering Scotland to accommodate the approach adopted elsewhere. In effect it argues that these set priorities are wrong if those outside Scotland cannot also get them (thus somewhat undermining the point of a devolved government) – that to make a priority of healthcare or education over London-centric vanity projects such as Crossrail, the Westminster makeover or the London sewage upgrade, is simply wrong. The idea that the rest of the UK should follow Scotland’s example does not seem to be accepted – everyone should simply have equal levels of misery (save for London and the SE), and that appears to be more important than the welfare of the electorate.
The total costs of these policies are around £1 billion a year (£590M for free university tuition, £200M for free personal care for the elderly, £60M for free prescription charges – did you know only 10% of the population ever paid for their prescriptions? so it was only ever marginally cost-effective to charge anyone for them in the first place – and £180M for free bus passes for the over sixties) out of the Scottish Government’s budget of £64 billion. And it seems that the opposition of the Labour Party in Scotland to these ‘wee things’ is having a cost to its electoral support.
I can remember meeting former Edinburgh Lord Provost Eleanor McLaughlin, in order to explore ways that the city could express support for Croatian self-determination in the wake of the attempted assassination of a political émigré in Kirkcaldy. Although she had a massive office, she was extremely human, even kicking off her shoes to sit in her armchair and relax during our meeting. I remember being impressed at this – in some ways a very warm and open gesture – and it is not entirely surprising that Eleanor and other former Labour grandees from Strathclyde Region or even Glasgow City Council, have come out in support of a ‘Yes’ vote. It seems that they see the threats of a ‘No’, the opportunities of a ‘Yes’ and how it is more congruent with core Labour values of compassion and support. But the current Labour representatives in Scotland look to be about to pay a somewhat heavy electoral price for their conduct in opposition since 2011.
An October 2013 poll has suggested that in the event of a ‘No’ vote, Labour would be subject to an even bigger backlash from the electorate than it was in the last Holyrood election, with only 47% of 2011’s Labour voters choosing them again for the devolved Scottish Parliament, as against 55% of their voters in elections to an independent Scottish Parliament the same year. It is, of course, hard to disentangle how much of this potential electoral collapse is a consequence of their leadership, as opposed to their opposition to the Scottish Government, or simply their support of a ‘No’ vote. But the loss to Labour appears greater if they ‘win’ the ‘No’ campaign, than if they lose it.
In short, for the Labour MSPs, the loss would appear to be their future, if they continue to espouse support for the ‘No’ campaign.
“At one time we had 50 Labour MPs out of 79 MPs in Scotland and they couldn’t do a damned thing to protect this country from Margaret Thatcher.” (Jim Sillars, June 2014)