Friday, 7 August 2009


This week's 'news' about the fact that there are no plans to abolish pensioners' free bus passes has been something of a controversy about nothing. A ministerial advisory group recommended looking at the issue again; the government said a firm 'no'. End of story.

Amanwy is amongst those who pointed out that the BBC were about three weeks late in drawing attention to the report concerned. The delay in responding is surprising, certainly; but I was also surprised at the time about the lack of attention given to a number of significant decisions made by the government in relation to the recommendations of the Ministerial Adisory Group. There is a sense in which the rejection of certain recommendations was actually more newsworthy than the acceptance of those which found their way into the national transport plan.

The bus pass policy has been both popular and successful, but in a time of budget cuts, universal benefits were always going to come under greater scrutiny, and there were always going to be those who would start to argue for cuts. The leading cutters of public services in general, the Tories, have responded by supporting the idea of curtailing, if not scrapping, the scheme, having already proposed scrapping the system of free prescriptions in Wales.

The word 'free' itself is actually a misnomer, of course - nothing is 'free' in the widest sense. The underlying question is whether certain goods or services are paid for individually as and when required, or collectively, so as to be available when required. And that difference in approach is more fundamental than some seem to realise.

Those who would use the current economic crisis as a reason for cutting back on things like bus passes and prescriptions fall into two categories. The enthusiastic cutters are those who have never believed that such things should be free in the first place; the reluctant cutters are those who would prefer to keep current arranmgements, but believe them to be a lower priority when less cash is available for government spending.

Those in the second category need to be careful that they don't end up becoming the instruments by which the first category deliver their agenda. There is more than mere pragmatism involved in this debate; there is also, as Adam Price has pointed out, a difference in ideological standpoint.

Adam puts forward a particularly robust defence of the principle of universality on his blog, with his usual clarity of expression. It's a welcome contribution; there is a real dividing line in politics here which is far too often treated as merely a debate about priorities. One thing of which we can be certain is that if we find ourselves with the Tories in power in Westminster after the next election, universality is going to need a lot of defending. Conceding the argument in advance, as some seem to be doing, is hardly the best way of defending public services.


Pelagius said...

I can think of some 'universal benefits' that Plaid Cymru should reject right now. Like the war in Afghanistan, nuclear weapons, new aircraft carriers, etc. Those cuts will save the trillions we need.

What I don't understand is why Plaid AMs are wobbly on domestic cuts (student fees) but do not - privately and publicly, as appropriate - press their Labour comrades to fight against these ' universal British benefits' before conceding Welsh domestic ones. Managerialism has its limits. A bit more politics, please!

John Dixon said...

I think we've already rejected all the "universal benefits" which you list.

Whilst I would wish that the Labour Party might agree with us on these, I'm not sure why you would think that we have any influence on their views on any policies outside the One Wales agreement.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...


I gave my views on my blog, but ultimately i am not sure that universalism has a real ideological pinning currently. It certainly doesn’t have ideological credence, given the current devolution settlement.

That is not to doubt the sincerity of those who promote it, given it is something I support. I do however think things like free prescriptions are very much a product of the devolutionary settlement – the desire to do something that captures the public’s attention within a limited, block grant settlement.

Ultimately we all begin at universality – we all would LIKE to have universal benefits for everyone ad infinitum, the debate is about what benefits are doable, workable and provide utility more than others.

The universalism project, the direction of travel, is about to face its first bit of turbulence. Questions will rightly be raised, I am not convinced that free prescriptions (which is a misnomer – the people who have seen them become ‘free’ are the ones who can afford it) represent a worthwhile universal benefit.

Universal free childcare for working adults (perhaps firstly for low income/single parents) is what we should be looking at.

Pelagius said...

In answer to the blog-meister, if policies in the coalition agreement are not capable of being implemented or are actually cut - was that the case with student fees? - because of the state of the UK economy under Labour, that is a valid reason to raise other issues.

The same party that is in government here can find unlimited public funds for warfare. That must not be a sacred cow. All 'cuts' must be put in the pot. Otherwise, cannot Plaid be accused of endorsing both categories of expenditure?

John Dixon said...


"It certainly doesn’t have ideological credence, given the current devolution settlement."

The current devolution settlement may constrain or shape implementation of particular proposals, but I don't see how it shapes or impacts the ideological underpinning for those proposals.

"things like free prescriptions are very much a product of the devolutionary settlement – the desire to do something that captures the public’s attention within a limited, block grant settlement."

That may have affected the choice of prescriptions as a subject, and the timing; but if those introducing free prescriptions didn't start from a perspective of believing that health care should be available as needed, but were merely looking for an eye-catching gimmick, they would surely have found another gimmick on which to spend the available cash; and there are plenty of those available.

"we all begin at universality."

On that, I have to disagree, and fundamentally so. I don't believe that we do all start at that point. There are those who believe that people should provide for themselves with a minimal safety net for those who cannot. Some of them would even replace the NHS with a system based entirely on private health care insurance, and take all of our schools out of public control. They certainly do not start from the same perspective as I do.

The wording that I used in the original post is key to my starting point - I think that there are a range of goods and services which we should purchase collectively rather than individually, and make them available on the basis of need.

I think that there's a significant ideological gulf between those two perspectives.

There is certainly scope for debate as to what exactly should come within the scope of that 'range of goods and services'. Using the term 'benefits' to describe that range of goods and services almost immediately suggests a very restricted range. "Collectively purchased goods and services" however is a much more open-ended concept.

In the case of public transport, for instance (and bus passes was part of what sparked my original post), one of the key determinants of whether people use public transport or private cars is cost. (Not the only determinant, of course - availability and convenience also come into the equation). The ultimate in cost reduction for public transport is to make it available for no cost at the point of use.

Now, why is that considered to be a 'benefit' or a 'subsidy' when building new roads is considered to be an 'investment'? Aren't these just two different approaches to the collective purchase of transport services? Except that one approach leads to a system which is greener and more cost-effective overall and therefore of social or collective benefit; the other maximises individual benefit. Isn't that an ideological difference?

John Dixon said...


I think you misunderstand the reasons for the decisions on student fees. The commitment in the One Wales agreement was implemented; but the agreement only covered the first three years. A valid criticism of myself and Plaid on that point would be to ask why we didn't insist on it lasting the full four years (or why we didn't insist on the agreement containing some explicit statement as to what would happen in the fourth year); but it is not correct to say that the One Wales agreement has been broken on this issue. I've learned some lessons from the issue and I think that Plaid has as well, which will affect the way we look at any future proposed coalition agreement.

I don't know at this stage to what extent the budget cuts being imposed from London may affect the ability of the One Wales government to deliver on the commitments in the agreement.

"The same party that is in government here can find unlimited public funds for warfare. That must not be a sacred cow. All 'cuts' must be put in the pot. Otherwise, cannot Plaid be accused of endorsing both categories of expenditure?."

At its simplest, 'no'. Your criticism of Labour's ability to find unlimited funds for making war is entirely valid, and one which I would support. And, of course, spending money on 'UK' activities such as 'defence' reduces the amount of money available for other matters - including the block grant for the National Assembly. In that sense, of course you are right - Labour's decision to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan has a direct impact on the availability of funding for public services here in Wales.

What I cannot agree with you on, however, is that Plaid are in some way endorsing this. We have a long record of opposing the wars waged by Labour, and of calling for reduced 'defence' expenditure in general.

Pelagius said...

Thanks for clarifying the student fee thing.

On my wider point, I still think Plaid is missing a trick on the (not) universal benefits of British nationalism I first listed. I agree that Plaid policy is clear.

It is Joe Public that needs to see and appreciate the differences. Voters will experience massive cuts in services and see Plaid ministers implementing at least some of them. The experience of Plaid's sister parties on the mainland shows being in coalition government has a negative electoral impact on the minor partner too; I don't care about Labour.

Plaid must develop a twin-track approach, one of which is strongly attacking the stupid excesses of British nationalism. Back to my original point, domestic (i.e. Welsh) managerialism is not enough. If it was, Plaid would have come first in the EP election. The warning signs are there. And the worst cuts have yet to come.

John Dixon said...

"domestic (i.e. Welsh) managerialism is not enough."

Couldn't agree more. And I also agree that we need a twin track approach; but as I've posted before it isn't always a straightforward thing to do.

Maintaining a clear focus on the long term and the 'big issues', and presenting a vision of a different type of future for Wales and the world is a vital element of what makes Plaid different from the other parties.

But a party which seeks electoral advance also needs to show that it can engage with the here and now, and offer short term policies which can be implemented within existing constraints and frameworks.

Those two aims can appear to be in conflict; it's easy for opponents to present the apparent conflicts as confusing and unclear. The simple way out would be to become an 'abstensionist' party, eschewing involvement in the short term in favour of purity of vision. (The late Dr Phil drew attention to this question in his minority Commission report in the early 1980s, of course.)

I'm not going to argue that we've yet found the right balance between the two approaches.