Why we must save universal benefits

The labour's leadership's claims that Scotland is the only "something for nothing" country in the world, is palpably ludicrous.

Scotland is the only "something for nothing" country in the world, according to Scottish Labour's leadership.

That claim is palpably ludicrous, and will be looked at askance by people the length and breadth of this country who work hard, pay their taxes and, quite rightly, expect to receive something tangible in return.

Devolution has enshrined the concept of a social contract between the people of Scotland and the Government which serves them. We live in a country in which I am proud to lead an administration that has protected things like free university education, free personal care for the elderly and medicines free at the point of need.

These and other universal benefits are hard-won advantages of home rule, some of which Labour itself was once proud to champion, but which they are now turning their back on.

However, the Labour leadership's claims about universal benefits do not stand up to any meaningful scrutiny.

These policies are by definition affordable because the Scottish Government is paying for them year after year from within a fixed budget.

Labour's "sticking the gas bill in the drawer for another day" analogy simply doesn't work – we pay for all of this now up front, and not by borrowing, which we currently don't have the power to do.

We are faced with tough choices, but we have made our priorities clear by committing to these policies, which actually only account for around 3.5% of spending in Scotland.

The warnings from some that these services will become steadily less affordable in the years to come are not new. This administration has been told at various points since we took office in 2007 that we would have to cut universal benefits, but we have protected and enhanced them by presenting a balanced budget every year and firmly cementing the concept of the social contract.

The claims about the affordability of spending in future years also fall down on two vital points. Firstly, the Scottish Government has made a strategic decision to switch our budget priorities towards preventative spending across a range of social policies, which means that instead of having to spend money to address health problems and other issues in later years, we are investing now to alleviate these problems.

Secondly, and crucially, the Scottish Government has a vision for the future finances of this country which extends far beyond the narrow confines of the austerity straitjacket being applied by David Cameron and George Osborne – and now seemingly signed up to by the Scottish Labour leadership.

That is the perhaps the most significant aspect of the debate which has opened up in recent days. Where only recently the Labour leadership said they would hold the Scottish Government to account on our pledges, they are now in retreat from that commitment, alienating many of their members and former supporters in their rush to ape Tory sloganeering.

The significance of this in the debate on Scotland's future cannot be underestimated. The Scottish Labour leadership has exposed a wide and vulnerable flank in the No campaign.

If the choice when the referendum comes is between an independent Scotland which protects the hard-won gains of devolution and seeks to build on them, with the extra tools to do so – or Tory-Labour cuts which alliance looks to strip away the existing benefits of home rule – I suspect the people will say Yes to independence.