Thursday 31 December 2015

Universalism versus exclusivity

Beware of journalists telling you what SNP policy is. Even National columnists and respected commentators such as Lesley Riddoch. Whatever their other qualities, they can all too often be too susceptible to the cosy consensus of the establishment media clique to avoid its distorting influence. Even when the person referring to "the prevailing SNP orthodoxy" is as illustrious as Lesley Riddoch, we should not be deterred from questioning their assertions as to what that "orthodoxy" is.

Whenever journalists critique some supposed SNP policy, that policy tends to be represented as whatever fits neatly with the writer's criticisms and conclusions. In the words of the great lyricist, Ira Gershwin, it ain't necessarily so. (Note to editors: I can do David Torrance-style name-dropping too. Gie's a column!)

I do not speak for the SNP. But I understand party policy from the perspective of an actively involved member and an engaged voter. I also speak as an ardent advocate of universal provision of fundamental public services. In neither capacity do I recognise the "orthodoxy" described by Ms Riddoch. I do not maintain that "popular public services must be free for everyone, even if that means other, more vital services are withdrawn or rationed as a result". And I strongly suspect that Nicola Sturgeon would also reject this as a description of her party's attitude to universalism.

In the first place, I would avoid the word "free". It is, in this context, a pejorative or, at least, an emotive term. I would not be shy about using the more accurate and honest phrase, "provided by the state".

More importantly, I do not accept that universal provision must be at some cost to other services. And certainly not "more vital" services. The idea that we might want to fund services that we regard as important at the expense of services that we hold to be even more important is, quite frankly, nonsensical. The suggestion that this is "orthodoxy" for either the SNP or proponents of universalism such as myself would be offensive but for Ms Riddoch's charming reputation,

Such simplistically mechanistic modelling is not appropriate to something as complex as an economy. Nor even the tax/benefit system within that economy. It simply is not the case that spending money on one thing means that you have to stop spending on something else. If, for example, spending on "free" prescriptions leads to lower rates of chronic illness and fewer hospital admissions, the policy can more than pay for itself.

A cost benefit analysis is aptly described as a complicated way of getting from a preconceived idea to a foregone conclusion. It all depends on what is included as a cost or a benefit.

Apart from the all too frequently discounted "ancillary" benefits of universal provision - minimal administration cost, better uptake rates etc. - there are two things that should be borne in mind when considering universalism versus means testing.

Where there is a genuinely progressive tax system, universal benefits will tend to be self-financing.

If we want a cohesive, inclusive society, a proliferation of artificial distinctions creating ever more exclusive groups is hardly the way to go about it.


  1. In a nutshell Peter nice one.

  2. Well said Peter. I would add one more consideration; services for the poor are poor services. In other words, a service aimed at the poorest in society will always be poor services because the better off in society have no personal investment in them and will come to resent being forced to pay for them. The best way to ensure the best possible services for everyone is to make sure everyone receives the same level of service for the same (zero) up front cost when using them.

    Consider the example of Tories running the NHS or state education systems while using private health care or education for their own families.

  3. Oh the horror of it Mr Bell, how dare anyone criticise the SNP?

    The 'Tartan Moonies' should never have such things happen to them!

    Cult members should never be exposed to dissent, in case they start thinking for themselves!

    Why the very idea!

    1. My comments were not about the SNP. As you might have realised had you bothered to read the article, I was writing in defence of universalism. This is not something exclusively supported by the SNP.