THE independence debate is so fraught that there is a danger of politicians falling into the trap of believing anyone they disagree with must be wrong about everything.
Labour’s opposition to universal free school meals is a perfect example. Alex Salmond yesterday announced that every pupil in P1 to P3 will get a free hot meal at school.
This has to be a good thing and was widely welcomed. It will mean every child whose parents struggle to feed them adequately is guaranteed a nutritious, healthy meal at a time when getting youngsters to eat healthily has never been more important.
More than that, as all pupils will be eligible, it will remove any stigma from the 20 per cent who already get free school meals.
That too is a step forward.
But despite this win-win situation, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont still opposed the move. She claimed free school meals would not be her priority as it would largely benefit better off children and the money would be better spent elsewhere.
The respected Child Poverty Action Group and many others vehemently disagree.
They argue that this is a genuine step forward in the battle on poverty.
That is not to say there is no room to criticise the SNP over the free meals issue.
As Tory leader Ruth Davidson pointed out, it is a policy the SNP first promised in 2007 and have had plenty of time to bring about.
But better late than never.
And Labour now find themselves opposing a move welcomed by just about anyone with anything to say about education and the eradication of poverty.
Labour are now at loggerheads with charities and campaigners like the EIS teaching union, the STUC, the Unison union and Save the Children, not to mention the Child Poverty Action Group.
These are organisations Labour should surely be on the right side of.
But in a miscalculation that may come back to haunt them, they have allowed the SNP to steal their clothes.
Leaving aside the fact that if the Record are saying it in their opinion piece, it can be fairly assumed that Lamont has made a pretty serious error there, the vexed question of means testing rears its ugly head yet again.
I can see Lamont's point of course. The scheme, by not discriminating between poor and rich families, inevitably results in children of rich people being subsidised.
What's the answer?
There isn't a definitive one. You have to weigh up the pros and cons.
In this case there's the elimination of the embarrassment of poor children being singled out for free lunches. I can remember how kids hated dinner money being taken at school and some getting a free pass, indicating that in some way their parents were inadequate and couldn't afford to feed them. Making that a thing of the past for kids will certainly be a good thing.
There's the fact that feeding a reasonably nutritious meal every day will improve their health; even reasonably rich parents don't necessarily bother balancing healthy eating with making it tasty (witness the overweight and obese children getting out of Chelsea tractors).
And take into consideration that means testing is expensive and frequently abused. A person who is out of work and applies for free meals (or anything else) may have plenty money in the bank, stocks, shares and a time share in Bulgaria. Or they may be back in work a few weeks after the application, and yet say nothing. Rigorous and regular testing of recipients is expensive, not to mention intrusive. And of course there are people who simply will not beg for help and end up paying although they can ill afford it.
We had the same sort of arguments over free prescriptions when the SNP reintroduced them.
When Labour brought in the NHS prescriptions were free. Indeed when they
later proposed the introduction of fees, small though it was, Ny Bevan resigned. (Gaitskill proposed prescription fees, dental fees and eyesight test fees to fund, as ever with Britain, yet another war; Korean this time).
With prescriptions we are already subsidising the rich who require expensive drugs. I was recently given a prescription for 100 paracetamol... the commercial cost of this would have been around £1.00. If I'd been in England it would have cost me over £8! On the other hand there are people on massively expensive drugs who also pay only £8. If we were fair, surely we would expect rich people to pay a far greater share of the REAL cost of their medicine.
In the UK as things get tighter... as Mr Osborne promises they will, we will see more of this battle about universality of benefits.
Richer pensioners may lose the free tv licence (over 75) or the various bus pass schemes that operate in the different countries of the UK.
Again many would agree. Why should Cilla Black or Princess Alexandra have a free tv licence and bus pass or a £200 heating allowance?
And they are fair questions. (But you might also ask if it is right that they should receive a retirement pension.)
Once again, of course the cost of means testing must be taken into consideration. A massive organisation would be required to sift out those who would be entitled. And of course the question is, where would the cut off point be? Income £199.99 per week = bus pass; income £200 a week = no bus pass? Would the cost justify the savings, and how would we deal with people who were 1p above the allowed amount, who would now face bus fares of maybe £15 a week? Also how many cars driven by old people does it keep off the road; how many accidents does this prevent, and how many buses would still run if it weren't for all the old people travelling free?
How many people rich people actually apply for a bus pass in any case? I'd be willing to bet that, although in theory they are entitled to them, neither of the two women above had taken advantage of them.
There is also the inevitability that when you remove the interest of richer people in benefits, these benefits are bound to become squeezed. One of the reasons that we should pay retirement pensions to the likes of John Major is that once benefits of any kind become only for the poor, the standard of their provision inevitably drops. The amount of money put into them diminishes; no one in power has any interest in increasing it.
However, it has to be said that, against all of that, there are undoubtedly billions of pounds, given to people who have absolutely no need of it and which might be better spent on the poor. And that then begs another question: what would the Uk do with that money? Give it to the poor, or start another war?
What do you think?