The election campaign is now in full swing, and already clear dividing lines are emerging between the main political parties.
I’ve being out speaking to people in towns and cities all across Scotland - and of course I am spending a lot of time on the doorsteps of Glasgow Southside.
Doing so is giving me an even clearer idea of what people’s priorities are for the next few years. I know that many family budgets are under pressure, and I know that there’s a real desire to see our public services be the best they can be.
So this campaign should be about who has the best ideas to do this. That why it was good to see this election really come to life during last week’s STV debate. I’m not sure if you saw it, but it was a lively encounter. The format was well thought-out, allowing us politicians to cross-examine each other about what we’re proposing. And when I questioned the Tory leader Ruth Davidson, she admitted that a vote for the Tories is a vote to reintroduce prescription charges of £8.40, and tuition fees of £6,000 for university students.
At a stroke, the Tory rhetoric about being the party of low taxes was completely demolished. They’re actually the party of stealth taxes. They’re the party of taxes on the sick, and taxes on education.
Two of my proudest achievements of the SNP Government have been getting rid of these charges.
Prescription charges were abolished five years ago this week in Scotland – while they’ve just risen to £8.40 in England. Let’s never forget that before the SNP abolished them, around 600,000 adults living in families with an annual income as low as £16,000 would have been liable for prescription charges.
People with Parkinson’s, MS, arthritis and many other long-term conditions would have had to pay for their medicine.As would people suffering from cancer.
It’s bad enough applying charges to people who fall ill for a short while, but to tax those with long term conditions for their illness was simply wrong.
Under the Tory plans, all of these people would once again face paying for being ill. I find it frankly baffling that any politician would seriously argue that we should roll back the clock and reintroduce prescription charges in Scotland, as the Tories are.
And the Tory plans to reintroduce tuition fees would be another huge backwards step.While tuition fees have continued to soar in England, Scottish students know that, under the SNP, their education will always be based on their ability to learn – not their ability to pay.
Under the SNP, the number of people from our most deprived communities who achieve a university qualification has increased.
Now there’s a lot more to do – and I’ve already made clear that improving educational attainment will be my biggest priority if the SNP are re-elected. But I can’t think of any quicker way to reverse the progress we’ve made than by reintroducing tuition fees.
Let’s also consider one more point. When Labour introduced tuition fees in 1997, we were told they were going to be £1000. But within a few years they trebled them, and then the Tories trebled them again, meaning students in England now pay up to £9,000 every single year.
So forgive me for being a bit sceptical when Ruth Davidson says that the education tax she is planning for Scots kids won’t be higher than £6,000.
Politics is all about priorities. I think that things like medicine and university tuition should be free at the point of need.
If the Tories don’t think there isn’t enough money to do that, then they shouldn’t be proposing to hand out tax cuts for higher earners. Or better yet, they could ask their colleagues in Westminster to stop cutting Scotland’s budget.
The point I’m making here in all of this is that we shouldn’t take free prescriptions, free education and many other policies for granted.
The SNP Government made them universally available because we firmly believe it’s the right thing to do – and as long as we are in government, they’ll remain that way.
But if other parties win the election, they may well not keep them that way.
So if you agree that a modern, socially progressive country should provide services such as free medicine and free education to all of its citizens, then it’s important that you get out and vote for the SNP on May 5th.