I want to talk today about things that matter to every day people.
The referendum might mean the biggest change in our constitution for 300 years but instead I want to talk about the big decisions which really occupy the minds of Scots every day.
Decisions like how to put food on the table. Decisions like what we cut from household budgets, when wage rises don’t meet price rises. Decisions like how you look after the kids when you are working and you can’t afford, or find adequate childcare.
What to do when your care support is cut. What to do when you can’t find a place at college. What to do when you lose your job and can’t find another.
We have a parallel world in Scotland.
As the nationalists try to find the question to which independence is the answer, fundamental questions go unaddressed.
We saw that in the budget last week. Nothing for jobs. Nothing to boost the economy. No tough decisions made.
If Alex Salmond is like George Osborne when he gets booed at Olympic events, John Swinney is, as the unions have said, ‘Osborne in a kilt.’
There are three fundamental problems for any finance minister.
One is the Tories’ agenda of cutting too far and too fast. But we know from the late Campbell Christie’s commission that public spending is not expected to return to 2010 levels in real terms for 16 years. But there are two other major problems. We, like every other country in Europe certainly, perhaps the world, will have to deal with the consequences of the collapse of the west’s banking system.
The other is the fundamental shift of economic power from west to east, with the rise of China and India.
There is, and there is going to be, less money around.
Add to that the fact that we can see a ticking demographic time-bomb that is about to explode, where fewer workers will have to provide the income to support more people and the job of an honest finance minister is a tough one.
The Scottish population aged 65 years old and over is will be a staggering 63% bigger by 2031. For those aged 85 and over, the population will rise 144%.
As a consequence, Scotland’s public services face unprecedented challenges.
When the nationalists commissioned the Beveridge Report and the Christie Commission, I thought they were getting serious about government. They tried to flag up the difficult decisions governments of any stripe, in any constitutional arrangement, will have to face.
I may only have been leader of my party for nine months but I have learned something about leadership. You cannot put problems off.
But what we saw last week was emblematic of this government.
When the going gets tough, they kick tough problems into the long grass.
In a budget badged as one wholly focused on economic growth, they ducked the tough decisions that may have enabled this. As they have done at budget time every year.
For example, spending on concessionary fares increased by 19 per cent over the last four years, while spending on enterprise and tourism has fallen dramatically by 33 per cent.
The Christie Commission told us: “Times of fiscal austerity inevitably require the Scottish Government to take difficult spending decisions between competing demands.”
But John Swinney doesn’t want to address the big questions because he has a big by-election to win in two years time. That is how the nationalists are treating the referendum. Like an election to be got through rather than an argument to be won.
So what’s their policy?
Don’t scare the horses. Don’t deal with the difficult stuff, the painful stuff that might make you unpopular. Leave it until later. Leave it until it is too late.
Some might even argue that John Swinney thinks it is in his political interests not to protect Scotland from the Tory cuts, but to let them run free in the hope that the pain that causes ordinary Scots will help him in the referendum.
I am not going to get into an auction with the SNP. They might cry freedom but the idea that Scotland is a land where everything is free is a lie.
Someone always pays for it in the end. A council tax freeze, for example, costs. It’s cheap to say, but expensive to fund. And if you don’t fund it properly, and John Swinney isn’t funding this one, I’ll tell you what it costs.
In North Lanarkshire alone, another 1400 jobs at risk. And if you don’t care about the families that involves, the lost services people rely on, the individuals facing idleness, crushed hopes and losing control of their lives, let me put it to you in cold economic terms.
That is potentially 1400 incomes taken out of the economy. When the Scottish economy desperately needs a stimulus, that is 1400 people spending less, supporting fewer jobs, buying fewer goods and services. And that, thanks to Salmond and Swinney refusing to fund the council tax freeze means that while individuals may pay less, the communities they live in are worse off and so ultimately are they.
Less support, fewer services for the poor and vulnerable and for the young and aspiring. Less cash in the economy. A downward spiral.
And let’s be clear when we repeat that John Swinney is George Osborne in a kilt.
When Osborne cut the Scottish government’s budget, Swinney cut local government deeper. Even when his budget was increased, John Swinney still cut the local government budget.
And all the while, the Scottish government passed a bigger and bigger burden on to an already stretched local government.
Class size pledges, kinship care allowances, free school meals, all promised by Alex Salmond, but without the money to pay for it. That is not leadership, that is passing the buck.
A vision for Scotland, all on the never never.
Alex Salmond says he’ll make Scotland a progressive beacon.
Well, I have to ask what is progressive about a banker on more than 100,000 a year benefitting more than a customer on average incomes from the council tax freeze?
What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?
What is progressive about judges and lawyers earning more than 100,000 a year, not paying tuition fees for their child to follow in their footsteps at university, while one in four unemployed young people in Scotland can’t get a job or a place at college?
I believe our resources must go to those in greatest need. But if the devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world he didn’t exist, Salmond’s most cynical trick was to make people believe that more was free, when the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich.
Alex Salmond is quick to point to the high levels of welfare in Scandinavia but those universal benefits are paid for by high levels of taxation. Scotland cannot be the only something for nothing country in the world.
And I will not tolerate a country where the poorest pay for the tax breaks for the rich.
Is it any wonder, that the biggest supporters of independence seem to be tax exiles who live abroad?
We need to ask different questions and face up to the honest answers.
For the last decade Scotland’s budgets have grown rapidly but we are in a new age with less money and more demands.
We need to say what we want Scotland to be, what we can realistically afford, and how can we, in reality, make Scotland better.
Lord Sutherland, the architect of free personal care, tells us: “Unless there is a marked increase in the share of taxation in the Scottish economy, quite significant cuts will have to be found in other programmes to continue to fund the present structure of care.”
This is the stark choice that Scotland has to face up to: if we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere. If we do not confront these hard decisions soon, then the choice will be taken from us when we will be left with little options.
That is why I will be taking a fresh and serious approach to developing policy.
First, we have set up a joint economic group between or MSPs and MPs, chaired by Cathy Jamieson and Ken Macintosh, which will seek evidence and advice from a wide variety of leading experts and authorities, aswell as ordinary people.
We will also work with Arthur Midwinter, associate professor at the University of Edinburgh, and former budget adviser to the Scottish Parliament for five years, to develop an across-the-board, costed analysis of available policy options at this time of financial austerity.
Working with Arthur, we hope to address the fundamental question of how we deliver social justice at a time of scarce resources.
And this week, my shadow cabinet will have a joint meeting with the Scottish Trade Union Congress to discuss how we get Scotland working again.
I am not saying today, that we have all the answers. But let me assure you from today we will ask the right questions while the SNP seek to duck them.
Let me tell you two differences between me and Alex Salmond. I didn’t come in to politics to break up Britain. And I didn’t come in to politics to dodge the difficult questions. I will answer them.
I pledge this to the people of Scotland. What I say will not always please you. But what I say will always be honest and true and how I genuinely see it.
I will not promise what I cannot deliver. And I will never hide the cost of what I propose.
I believe my job is to tell Scotland the truth about itself, and explain how we make our country better.
It is not patriotic to say you are curing poverty when it still remains the same.
You cannot hide a dole queue behind a saltire.
The lion rampant is not an alternative to an opportunity to have an education or a job.
Anyone who tells you anything different lacks credibility.
So I want to start a debate about what Scotland’s priorities are.
I want to identify our real needs and our real resources and discuss how we match them up.
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.
How do we improve standards in schools while remaining true to our comprehensive ideal, where equality does not compromise achievement.
How do we devise housing policy that ensures first class social provision while helping those who want to get a foot on the property ladder.
How do we move beyond the “numbers game” on targets. We need to be honest that the target of 1,000 additional “bobbies on the beat” is not the best use of police resources when a number of them are filling back office jobs which have been cut.
If the SNP’s promise of 25,000 modern apprenticeships was achieved it was only by sleight of hand. People in jobs for years being badged apprentices to meet the political targets. Press release headlines mattering more than peoples’ lives.
We need to be honest about apprenticeships – apprenticeships should be as highly regarded university education. If this means fewer, but better quality apprenticeships, we need to be honest about this.
We need to be honest that the funding of local government finance is in need of reform; we need to move beyond the “sticking-plaster” policy of a council tax freeze; our aim is to think about this seriously, not as the SNP did with local income tax, in order to put local government finance on a long-term sustainable footing.
Nurses become nurses to care for those in need. Teachers become teachers to help children learn and develop. Police officers enter policing to protect communities and local neighbourhoods. They do not enter their professions to meet centrally imposed targets.
We need a “new accountability” in public service delivery – an accountability that is devolved to the front-line.
Politicians must remain ultimately accountable. I am not calling for a shirking of responsibility, politicians must be responsible for long-term strategic planning and major budget decisions. They must be responsible for leading improved performance and ensuring value from each pound spent, establishing clear guarantees about expected standards.
It’s time for us to enter a new stage in public service delivery. My priority is to empower both the users of public services and those who deliver them to improve standards for all.
Once we have decided as a country what kind of public services we aspire to, then we must have an honest debate about affordability.
What I am calling time on today is the dishonest auction on what we can do. I am withdrawing from the game, where politicians look not at needs but at slogans and ask not how to improve the lot of the Scottish people but what we can bribe them with by claiming it is free.
The fair and just Scotland we all want to build will cost. That is my honest opinion.
And that’s what I will give you for free.
I know that there are families, working hard, on above average incomes who feel they pay enough and are attracted by policies like free prescriptions, free tuition fees and the council tax freeze.
I know where they are coming from.
But I ask them to look at how they are paying for those free things. What price your free prescription when an elderly relative spends five hours on a trolley in A&E, or the life-saving drug they need isn’t available at all?
What price free tuition fees when your neighbour can’t get a place at college, or when university standards are now lower than when they went to uni?
What price the council tax freeze, when your parents care is cut, and your child’s teachers cannot give them the materials they need because there is a ban on something as simple as photocopying.
There is a great reward for taking these hard decisions. In Government, we faced down huge opposition to housing stock transfer, including from the SNP, to deliver one billion pounds worth of investment in housing in Glasgow.
Rather than put off tricky areas like land reform, we got into the detail and delivered the means to transform rural communities, socially and economically.
And I believe we as a country will be rewarded again for taking hard decisions. Not taking hard decisions for the sake of it, but testing policies against the evidence to ensure we deliver for the people of Scotland.
The SNP say to criticise them is to talk Scotland down. Instead it is they who insult Scotland by refusing to talk straight to Scotland.
In a time of scarce resources, we, as a society, must make sure that those resources we have go where there is need and where there is opportunity.
The SNP fail to make the distinction between an election strategy and a strategy to address the problems facing the nation. A strategy for government.
They allow media tactics to over-ride policy direction.
Recently, my colleague Richard Baker was interviewed on the BBC. It was put to him that if we did not offer not constitutional change, we would just be ‘managing decline.’
Now we will offer a fresh vision of where devolution should be renewed.
But this thing struck me. The constitutional debate which we have had now for more than half a century – be it about devolution or independence – has meant that when we say change in this country, the only thing we mean is constitutional change.
But we can change Scotland now. We have the powers in the Scottish Parliament now, to change radically education, health, public services. What we lack is the will.
What we lack – and what is crowded out by the referendum debate – is a real debate of radical ideas about how we change Scotland now.
We need to break out of the straight jacket of saying that more powers to politicians alone is the way we change the country.
We need people’s attitudes to change. We need individuals and communities to feel empowered to change their lives.
Yes we will change devolution but we need more profound change than even that.
If it is going to get tougher to deliver the services we want, let alone expand them, I want to hear from the people who use them and the people who provide them on how we can change.
While we wait for the referendum. While we wait for Alex Salmond to tell us his vision of independence – while we watch him squandering taxpayers cash in the courts to try to prevent the people for getting a sniff of that vision – we need the space for a different debate about how we change Scotland now.
Too many people are losing their jobs, or the services they rely on, or the opportunities to better themselves, for us to hold back.
We can debate the constitution. But there is no debate about the crisis we face in the public finances and the public sector.
It is lived. It is real for families now.
Let’s face up to the real questions. Let’s grasp them. And let’s have the courage to come up with honest answers.
Johann Lamont MSP is the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Follow her on Twitter at @JohannLamont.