Free debate

There is, it would appear, a discernible pattern in the current state of play at Holyrood with regard to the debate over public spending.

The SNP is seizing what it believes is a political opportunity granted by their principal opponents. That is, to characterise Labour as posing a threat to valued services by their questioning of universality - suggesting further that this stance matches that of the Tories.

Labour's approach is to blend a pragmatic defence of prioritisation in service provision - with straightforward personal attacks upon their SNP opponents.

To date, we have witnessed two ad hominem attacks (upon Alex Salmond and Derek Mackay). Last week we got the ad feminam version when Johann Lamont depicted Nicola Sturgeon as living in a £200k salary household, remote from everyday concerns.

The attack upon Alex Salmond today was of the same stamp and, of course, seeks to build upon Labour's previous depiction of Mr Salmond as a friend of the wealthy.

Reserving the personal stuff until last, Ms Lamont lampooned the FM - his salary, his hospitality budget, his TV package. He did not, she averred, live in the real world.

Alex Salmond dealt with it all rather well. Laughing, he rose and declared: "So much for the quality debate!" (Johann Lamont had pleaded for high grade political scrutiny.) His colleagues joined in the laughter. Ms Lamont looked just a little frosty.

Educational cuts

There is substantive debate in there somewhere. Ms Lamont argued that universal provision came at a cost to other services which were particularly needed by those with less.

Mr Salmond argued that universality was more efficient - eschewing wasteful means-testing - and more just: building social cohesion by providing a return to tax-payers as well as those dependent on assistance.

Presumably, the debate will move into these elevated zones as the spending controversy develops and Labour's review begins to produce its verdict upon existing services - and, most importantly, its alternative ideas. Presumably.

The other parties pitched in today too. For the Tories, Ruth Davidson spotlighted what she claimed were damaging cuts in educational provision, notably to bursaries. For the Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie urged additional spending upon nursery provision for two-year-olds.

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