The principle involved in the public subsidy of public goods is long established. In the provision of universal education (up to secondary level) and universal health care it became the finest achievement of the European social model. We are now much richer as a society than we were fifty years ago when the great social advances of the NHS and comprehensive state education were first made. It’s time to take the decommodification of ‘public goods’ to a higher level. As we would expect from one of the beacons of modern social democracy, Wales is already well advanced on this path of radical universalism as evidenced by the historic decision to complete Bevan’s vision and scrap prescription fees, copied now as a policy by the SNP administration and lauded by the BMA in England. This is one of the great tangible achievements of Welsh Devolution and I am surprised at those even in my own party, on both left and right, who appear to countenance turning the clock back given this was Plaid policy for decades, advocated at times when the public finances were under substantially greater pressure than they are today.
On free bus transport to pensioners the Welsh Government cannot claim to be policy innovators in the same way as the GLC first introduced this policy in 1973. But in wishing to sweep the policy away, and replace it with a means-tested system, the Ministerial Advisory Group (WAGMAG?) is planting its flag firmly on the side of those who argue for minimal subsidy and therefore a minimal service as a kind of safety net for the socially excluded rather than a first class service for all. The disagreement is presented as pragmatic (or technocratic) but it is actually philosophical and deeply ideological in nature.
Instead of scrapping the policy we should be talking about extending free bus travel to include rail (as happened in London in the case of the Underground) beyond the few selected services on which it is currently available. We should be extending free bus travel to young people, beyond the concessions currently available (as has happened in London); and eventually aim to introduce the entirely free public transport system that has been successfully introduced in cities and towns around the world: in Hasselt, Flanders; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and dozens of others throughout Europe and North America.
We should extend the principle of the NHS to include free social and personal care for the elderly; huge future public health gains would be made through the provision of free nutritious school meals; the right to free education (and the commitment to progressively introduce free higer education enshrined in Article 13 (2) of the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which the UK is signed up to – rendering the British and, now sadly, Welsh Governments open to challenge with regard to their tuition fees policies after the Optional Protocol to the Treaty allowing complaints to be made by non-State actors becomes operational in September) should be extended to include free universal childcare on the Scandinavian model and free university and further education. Access to knowledge itself should be made free. The same principle that led to the creation of a network of free, public lending libraries in the Internet age should mean free access to super-broadband for everyone as has just been proposed in the Basque country. We should also take a leaf out of Plaid’s new sister party in the Green/EFA group and advocate free access to all digital material on the Internet for personal use. After all, information and knowledge are not chocolate bars – in economic terms, they are non-rival goods: I can have my cake and you can eat it too. And by sharing information we actually increase its value to society as more people become educated and more creativity and innovation flow.
With its other policies of free museums and castles and free swimming for the elderly and the young (unique in Europe) Wales has begun to develop its own distinctive social model for the twentieth century. It is already helping shape a global debate of the rival futures: universal versus means-tested; free versus commodified; the politics of the safety net versus the politics of the good society. Which side are you on?