In Scotland, everything from eye tests to prescriptions to university tuition is paid for by the state, even if you can easily afford to pay for it yourself. Such is the intoxicating effect of universal benefits that the only question up for debate in the Scottish Parliament is what else can be given to everyone for free, rather than what is most effective or affordable.
That was until Humza Yousaf became First Minister. In need of a political lift following the police investigation into the SNP’s finances, Yousaf has engineered a significant break – not just with his predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon, but with the Scottish political consensus that had nurtured his career to date. At a cross-party anti-poverty summit in Edinburgh yesterday, Yousaf scrapped Sturgeon’s pledge to introduce free school meals in secondary schools and indicated universal benefits will no longer be the uninterrupted mantra of the SNP. Instead, he said the focus would shift to targeting benefits towards those most in need:
‘I’ve got a 14-year-old now. Should people be paying for her free school meals when I earn a First Minister’s salary? I don’t think that’s the right way to use that money – a better way is to target those that need it absolutely the most.’
This is not only right in principle, but also in practice, particularly given the strained nature of public finances. It cannot be right – at least for anyone that likes to present themselves as progressive, as the Scottish political establishment is wont to do – to subsidise the rich at the expense of the poor.
The problem for Yousaf is his failure to apply this sound principle to its logical conclusion.