by Rab Bruce’s Spider

I had some interesting responses to a Tweet I posted last week about a conversation between two pensioners which was overheard on a bus. The point I was trying to make is that a lot of people don’t seem to appreciate or even realise how fortunate they are that the Scottish Government maintains a stance of providing so many free services. It was retweeted a fair bit and, as you’d expect, came in for some criticism.

The negative responses fell into three categories. The most common reply was to assert that I had invented the conversation to make a point. There’s not a lot I can say to argue with this since it boils down to my word against that of other people who have already made up their minds. All I can say is that the story was told to me by an eyewitness whom I trust implicitly. What I found odd, though, was that calling me a liar was sometimes the first argument put forward by people who actually had far more valid grounds to argue against my original comment.

That’s because many people quite rightly reminded me that the various free things I had mentioned had actually been introduced by previous Labour Governments. I can only hold my hands up and admit they are right. I’ll be sure to remember that in future.

But it’s the third category I think is worth responding to in far more detail than Twitter allows. It is factually correct but, in my view, rather pedantic. It is that none of the things mentioned, i.e. transport, healthcare and prescriptions, are free because they are paid for out of taxes. One person seemed quite indignant that her taxes were being used to fund such things, but perhaps I misinterpreted her angry reply.

Now, it is true that every service provided by any Government is funded out of taxation or Government borrowing. Whether it is healthcare, policing, pensions, or nuclear weapons, if the Government funds it, then taxation / borrowing is where the money comes from.

But that rather misses the point. When we say healthcare is provided free, we mean it is free at the point of use by anyone who needs it, irrespective of whether they have ever paid any taxes themselves.

Education is a good example, since we know Scottish students who attend university pay no additional fees for the tuition, while those in England do, normally by running up large student loans. The actual education provision in Scotland is funded by Government but, as far as individual students are concerned, they pay nothing and so it is “free".

I’m not sure why so many people seemed upset at me saying such things are free. Perhaps it is because, in the UK, we are taught via the media that taxes are a bad thing and that people who live off the state are scroungers. This is strange since everyone knows that it is our taxes that pay for the vital public services we all want and need. It would be nice if the culture of self-interest could be shifted so that people took pride in paying more tax in the knowledge that their contributions were funding things for the public good, although whether that situation could ever arise in the UK seems rather doubtful given the current dominance of Right Wing thinking in UK politics.

It is, though, this attitude of self-interest which convinces so many people who are less well off to keep voting Tory. The lure of maybe escaping poverty through hard work seems to attract voters in England even though all the evidence suggests that such an escape is highly unlikely. In fact, you are more likely to suffer an accident or health issue which leaves you disabled than you are to join the ranks of the wealthy. I often wonder how people’s attitude towards taxation and public services alters when something bad does happen to them. Believe me, it is when such problems hit you that you really begin to appreciate the free provision of services.

Then there is the whole issue of where a Government’s spending priorities should lie. We are already seeing the effects of spending cuts on the NHS in England, something we have, so far, been protected from. But it goes further than that. The extension of free prescriptions to everyone actually helps in the longer term since people on low incomes are not forced to choose between paying for essential medication or paying for food, rent or heating. If someone feels they cannot afford to pay for medication, they could well develop serious health conditions which could require hospitalisation. It’s very much a case of prevention being better than cure.

As for those, like Colonel Davidson, who argue that people who can afford to pay for things like prescriptions, their own argument about taxation should answer them, since those on higher incomes will already be paying more in tax. The whole point of a universal system is that everyone benefits when they need it.

So, well done to Labour for introducing such things as free healthcare, and well done to the SNP for extending and maintaining the free provision of health and education services as well as all the other things like policing that we take for granted. And let’s hope that, one day, we might live in a society where people take pride in paying their taxes so that everyone can benefit.