A Shaft of Light

The lovely aspect of Andrew O’Hagan’s conversion to Yes was the way it cut across the grain of despair being heavily promoted by the champions of Scotland the Province.

The self-styled Unionist lobby has feasted on the contrivance that they somehow ‘won’ an election they comprehensively lost. They have delighted in cramming Scotland back inside a box marked Useless. In their hubris they have claimed an ascendancy that in reality looks more like an electoral spasm.

This year’s general election in Scotland was a vote of revenge for many when the chance came to round on the nationalists who had so discombobulated them. There has after all to be a reason why a Liberal in the North East would vote for a Brexit Tory knowing it would damage their own local economy more than anywhere else in the UK. (We await the government’s report confirming this. So far they are afraid to publish). To abandon every progressive principle of your party and betray its history in order to replace committed, professional representatives with amateurs and careerists from the Rotary Club speakers’ committee, is, like Brexit, a stunning act of self-harm.

That’s what happens when you vote out of revenge – you vote against one thing and forget what you’re getting in exchange. As Ruth Davidson has just admitted, you got a Tory Party devoid of policy. She is now seeking ideas that can be turned into proposals for government when surely that’s what elections are supposed to be about.

Anyone voting for her candidates in June got a pig in a poke – a know-nothing MP (one of whom is holding surgeries by appointment only) and a party without policy. Still, they chased the SNP. And, of course, they delayed a referendum, which may be the last hope of escaping a disastrous Brexit. I fear North East Liberal voters who turned to the Tories may fit Blackadder’s barb at Baldrick: ‘I’d bump into cleverer people at a lodge meeting of the Guild of Village Idiots’

Still, however politically bewildered, they have delivered for the increasingly frothing commentariat a prize that has eluded them for a decade – a blood lust of vengeance which is sweeping away all reason, all nuance and balance. Witness David Torrance in the Guardian.

Add in the desertion of part-time Nationalist voters back to their natural home of British Labour and it could be presented as the wilting of the Yes flower. I’ve spent some time worrying away at the concept of voting Labour in Scotland while supporting independence and concluded that, as always, people should be true to themselves and act accordingly. All are welcome when it comes to the cause. I’m just confused by the message since, if everyone did the same, and voted Labour, there would assuredly be no independence for Scotland. Indeed if only a few thousand more did so, independence would be further away than ever. Nothing will delight the Westminster oligarchy more than SNP voters deserting to Labour. Go figure.

So the O’Hagan intervention was a welcome shaft of light reminding us that if we want real change, it will only come through self-government. By definition, we ourselves will make the decisions on the Scotland that we want. That’s the whole point. It doesn’t guarantee any of us will get exactly what we’d prefer, but that’s because it’s a democracy with diverse views. But we will get Scotland’s wish, not England’s.

And that’s become the defining point since Brexit – the realisation that the Union itself has become a myth. There can only be a union between willing partners who deal with each other equitably, or at least with mutual respect. I agree with O’Hagan that the Supreme Court ruling proved that even the latest devolution settlement was a stitch-up allowing Scots to be overruled at will. The lack of a Unionist foundation can be found in the dismissal of Scotland’s separate EU vote. ‘It was a UK decision’, we are told as if to confirm the English majority in Parliament that ensures we will always get what they want. I’m increasingly with Alf Baird on this; Scotland is today a province of greater England more than it is a partner in Union.

As it happens, I see advantages in Union and believe that after independence there will be a close relationship mirroring some of the joint arrangements we have now. As a Borderer, I know the strength of feeling in favour of it and respect articulate views in support. But where is the justifying case for Union? The endless sneering at Scotland and its aspiration and threats of currency withdrawal and retaliation hardly speak of partnership or respect. Yet that appears to be what vocal support for the UK is reduced to.

O’Hagan reminds us that not all political thought is frenzied and partisan. Outside of the Daisleys and the Deerins, the alt right Oor Wullies, the Scots doubtful about independence are not zealots. The somewhat scary partisans of Scotland in Union with their extremism do not represent Scottish Unionist opinion any more than Scottish Resistance represent Nationalism. And anyone can be converted to the other side. Andrew O’Hagan himself was an unflinching critic as was Tom Morton, now both openly campaigning for our side.

There is no reason to think the wider public is any different. How long will it take voters who turned Tory to see how ineffectual their MPs are and how the party is pursuing the decimation of their own economic base?

When will lefties see through Corbyn as a man who talks left but who is as unquestioningly Unionist as Ruth Davidson and would exult in the extermination of the SNP?

It remains the case that those of us who are proudly Scottish Nationalists have in our hearts a cause, one that transcends political parties and can unite Scots. Even those who have moved back to Labour have not abandoned the aim of independence.

To support the Union today demands acceptance of the most shambolic bunch of liars and jokers who’ve ever held high office in Britain. It means watching as they turn somersaults with red tape and taxpayer’s money trying to buy back what we currently have to no advantage. Britain has been turning into a dystopian pantomime under the Tories (and Liberals). Now the show has hit Broadway and the whole world is watching.

The logic of O’Hagan’s case is compelling. His words inspire. And they speak to a truth the Unionist hardliners cannot bear – however slowly, the transformation of Scotland can no longer be stopped.

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UKOK?

The most noteworthy thing about Unionists is how they never talk about the Union. Consume the output of media politics in Scotland from one week to the next and you’ll virtually nothing about the relationship between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

The comments of players in the game appear, for sure, and events like Damien Green meeting Scottish ministers about divvying up post Brexit powers are treated as news but there is virtually no perspective on the working of the relationships that are the sinews of the construct that is Britain.

I wait in vain for any of the pro-Union representatives to make a speech lauding the current state of the country or to break out of the predictable studio narrative and cry Hallelluja! Thank the Good Lord for bestowing upon us a country so contented, so prosperous, so healthy and united and for national leadership so inspiring it is taken as a beacon for others around the world. Blessed we are in this United Kingdom.

Or even: things ain’t too bad, after all.

Could it be that nobody in Britain actually believes that things are going well. Is the truth that nobody has faith in leadership. Why do polls suggest majorities in all four nations believe the Union will end, perhaps within a decade?

There appears to be a self-denying ordinance gagging those who should be holding up the UK as a template for a well-run country. Instead of examples of how Britain does things better and gets results, we are subjected to many reasons why any alternative is worse. The same thing happened during the indyref when every utterance of independistas was examined minutely but with no corresponding analysis of how things actually work now.

I’ve watched the relish with which a Twitter row among Yessers is elevated to mean the end of the nationalist dream when it hasn’t touched the leadership or cohesion of the wider movement at all. A handful of mini-celeb names that mean nothing to the hundreds of thousands of independence voters across the country have let their narcissism get the better of them.

But is the SNP split? Is the Cabinet in revolt? Has anyone resigned? Has anyone in a position of authority said anything worth quoting? Is anybody opposing the continuing objective of independence?

Contrast that with a broken-back Prime Minister whose Chancellor maps out a new approach while she’s on holiday, before her deputy straightens it out again.

Here’s a section from the FT:
‘Theresa May’s cabinet is split into at least three groups over how Britain should arrange a transition period after Brexit, according to several people involved in discussions. One group, led by Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is pushing for the most gradual departure possible from the EU and tends to stress the economic risks of Brexit. Another, including Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, tends to emphasise the opportunities of departure and the need to honour last year’s Brexit referendum result and favours a cleaner break. Then there is a group in between, which includes the prime minister and her de facto deputy, Damian Green, as well as two notable Brexit campaigners, Michael Gove and David Davis.’

Considering the importance of Brexit this is little short of disastrous. Remember, these are the people in charge of the policy yet are deeply divided among themselves. Somehow a coherent argument has to be put to the EU negotiators from this guddle.

They are still fighting each other as the clock ticks down. And for noises off – the equivalent of the Yes Twitter spat – we have the recently resigned aide to David Davis saying the whole Brexit disaster must be stopped, a new political party formed and the Brexiteers who lied to the voters, jailed.

These are the people running the United Kingdom whose health service may be approaching breaking point because of their policy and funding failures (I predict the Tory solution will magically turn out to be private investment).

Even before we turn to the universally agreed destruction that Brexit will bring, the state of the nation surely demands that we hear a great peoples debate on what kind of country Britain has become.

It is now established for example that the effects of austerity and lack of investment mean people in the north of England die younger than those feather-bedded in the south. The rate of premature death in people under 45 is falling in the south, but stagnating in the north. In 2015 the number of premature deaths of people aged 35 to 44 was 50% higher in the north than the south. Since 2008, the regional death gap has widened alarmingly, bucking a decades-long trend.

Dawn Foster, in the Guardian, writes: ‘deaths by suicide, from substance abuse and chronic health conditions: a growing death toll driven by despair and diminishing quality of life for young people, with life chances winnowed away and health worsening for one section of the population while the other flourishes. These are the diseases of despair: deaths that aren’t inevitable and would be entirely preventable if only health inequalities in this country were taken seriously. The deindustrialisation of Britain hasn’t helped, leaving areas with no industry, precarious work, high unemployment and for young people, little prospect of a better life and a stab at social mobility.’

The Tory Party that 700,000 Scots voted for brought in the two-child maximum benefit cutting at a stroke a financial lifeline to three-child families almost a third of of whom are now struggling to pay for basic living costs. With a new baby to care for but no extra tax credits to help cover costs, parents reported having to skip meals themselves so they could feed all their children. Some told the charity they’re developing health problems because they can’t afford food with the right nutrition or vitamins. Others say their children now have to go without the right school uniform or materials for class.

If Unionist Scots do care about the ‘United” kingdom, why is so little attention paid to the way whole areas of the country is run? We were told we had to shun our own self government so as not to leave in the lurch the poor and vulnerable in Liverpool and Leeds. Well, we’re still here. How are we doing?

It’s when you look at the reality of de-industrialised, under-invested Britain with its rentier economy and craven surrender to foreign economic interests that you know why even Tories don’t celebrate the UK. There are no peons of praise, no hymns or hosannas that any British politician could utter that wouldn’t be treated with justified contempt. May, whose term at the Home Office was stained yet again this week in another immigration court appeal, talked about the Just About Managing – JAM families on the edge. It is her own government that is the JAM. And the UK, now the worst performing economy in the developed world and one of the most unequal, is a global laughing stock for shooting itself in the foot over the EU.

Labour too is split badly over Brexit and fighting internally over deselection of MPs. The stardust of Corbyn is dispersing as he is steadily exposed as a charlatan like all the others with anti-nuclear and student policies evaporating on examination and his Bennite distaste for the EU.

Even natural allies of Britain are scathing in their scorn at the delusional Brits. But you won’t find this as a narrative in Unionism because, as must be clear by now, like Brexiteers, they live in denial. And fundamentally most pro-Union types can never accept that any level of Hell could be worse that their own country’s independence.

Attacking Scotland and Yes is easy – and we shouldn’t facilitate that – but don’t be deflected. The enemy is the British system, the matrix of powers that is the State and their desire to exploit the nation for their own self-interest. That’s what has created the state we’re in.

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Repeat Prescription

The time is coming when normal politics may have to be put on hold in the national interest. Yes, just like wartime. The implications of a bad Brexit will transcend partisan considerations. The people will look into the abyss and demur. Save us, they will demand.

At least the sensible ones will. We currently have a large schadenfreude minority apparently prepared for the country to really suffer to justify their own position and others so lost in parochialism they will take the plunge hoping someone will appear from nowhere with a soft mattress to land on.

The logic of the Brexit orbit is to pull us irresistibly to the EU centre. Every cause and effect points to retaining the current position. What’s to be done about the medicines agency and the banking authority based in London, for example? They will depart taking with them highly paid jobs and 40,000 hotel nights a year. But still the UK will need to replace them and replicate their work and meet the EU’s standards anyway. Logic? Stay in the EU and keep them and their jobs and economic spin off here.

The tragedy for the UK is that both major parties at Westminster, for differing ideological reasons, are on the same side – isolationism. Those in both Tory and Labour parties who can see the unfolding disaster will have to put country first and join with the pro-Europeans in Liberals, SNP, Greens and Plaid to mount a UK-wide save-the-country campaign. It could lead to a new politics. *

But there is another area where big tent politics is becoming critical in order to save us from catastrophe – the state of the NHS. To many, the health service is in its way as important as EU membership, perhaps more so. It represents something about Britain, its past and future, which binds us together beyond borders, albeit managed territorially. It is one of those areas of life that gives us quiet satisfaction, pride even. It makes us not only feel well but feel good, like a full stomach or money in the bank. I think that’s why in public debate it is treated like a new-born baby, precious yet vulnerable.

But just as warm words are soothing when ill, they won’t replace a blood transfusion or perform a hip replacement. Talking up the NHS, despite its many shortcomings, is applying ointment to a broken arm. More fundamental surgery is required.

The evidence mounts that this most essential of services is in serious trouble; that the management knows it, that the politicians are transfixed. Like Brexit, the first requirement is honesty. From health professionals to civil servants to ministers and MSPs, there has to be a clear-sighted view and an admission that the present funding of the NHS cannot go on, if we wish it to survive.

Throughout the devolution years the warning lights have been flashing on every front – the rising cost of medicines, the increase in prescriptions, an ageing demographic, an unfit population, new systems and equipment at exorbitant cost, fewer students entering medical degrees, pay not keeping pace, the growth in contract nursing and the rise in administration and management – 18 per cent of the workforce total last year, easily second to the number of nurses (43%).

The flashing lights are now accompanied by a klaxon. Holes are appearing in care. Services are being withdrawn, both in hospital and GP form.

The recent case in the south-west is part of a trend. The BBC reported that NHS Dumfries and Galloway was forced to suspend admissions for a week and downgrade the casualty unit to a minor injuries facility because of a shortage of doctors.They said the hospital was open and fully staffed but that a challenge remained in securing medical cover on an on-going basis.

A doctor from elsewhere in Scotland contacted me this week. Even in our highly regarded and respected practice we have been unable to recruit to a 5-session (two and a half days) GP post. We already have 3 practice nurses, 2 health care assistants and an advanced nurse practitioner. We are now going to advertise for an unscheduled care practitioner and I hope we might get one. But even if we do that, if another GP partner leaves the practice soon, we are unlikely to recruit and, as a result, we could go under.

Recruitment, instead of access to a prized profession, is stalling. As are genuine attempts to streamline and improve provision by the merger of health and social work organisations.

But why is this happening? I’m afraid it’s the same problem as Brexit – the politicians are afraid to confront the reality because to them the costs are too high, both literally and politically. Finding the money means changing priorities which in turn means disappointing others and fire-fighting. Altering how things are done and removing facilities to centre them more sensibly, causes heated reactions in communities where there is already evidence of under investment. No politician wants to face the wrath of the voters and no amount of cold logic will convince an inflamed crowd.

So cowardice is part of the story but so is irresponsible scaremongering.

Here’s my doctor again: All of them – Tories, Labour, LibDems, Greens, SNP – are in denial about it. Instead of coming together to forge a way through the crisis they continue to use it as a political football. At the same time the Scottish Government is in paralysis and reluctant to change because of the appalling behaviour of the Scottish media.

The hysterical and deliberate misreporting by journalists of issues in the NHS doesn’t just terrify those about to use hospital services. It forces professionals on to the defensive. Opposition politicians, while justified in pointing out deficiencies, play to the media with hyperbole. This was the point made by the Nuffield Trust which found much pioneering work in Scotland that could be replicated elsewhere in the UK but, crucially, deduced that: The Scottish NHS faces a serious financial predicament. The need for savings is at least as great as for other UK countries, and health boards are struggling to find ways to deliver them. Limited national planning for the next few years and a polarised, hostile political context make an honest national debate difficult. While the strengths of the Scottish NHS could help it to save money, there is also a risk that they are undermined by the intense financial squeeze. It adds: Several interviewees from across the spectrum of roles referred to a polarised political culture, with the SNP Government seeking majority support for independence and a largely hostile press looking to attack their record on the NHS.

This is the result of an infantilised political culture where mouthy politicos seek not to uncover truth and find remedy but to stoke resentment via a trivialising media. The result is a failure of nerve, a lack of honesty and operational stasis. Pursuing independence does not mean sidelining essential services.

An offer to help the SNP out of its difficulty, a government acceptance that the opposition might have something positive to contribute and a limited truce on horror attacks would release everyone from their silo and bring a much needed improvement to the quality of politics and ultimately to the health service.

But why should we let them off the hook? The answer is simple – for the national good. Just like the need to confront Brexit. And here’s the news: maybe the public are smart enough to recognise the altruistic effort without being bludgeoned by soundbite. Maybe they will reward after all the ones who had the vision and integrity to act before it was too late. Wouldn’t that be a prize?

Last word to my GP. The media have to take a huge share of the blame for where we are now because they constantly do down the NHS and those that work in it, especially doctors, and they crucify any politician who tries to suggest different ways of delivering the service. It’s time to call for a national consensus and to tell politicians to knock their heads together instead of using the NHS to score childish cheap points off each other. I am sorry to lump this on you but I care so dearly about the NHS and the principal of universalism that under-pins it.

*Disappointed to see Jo Swinson trying to carve out a Liberal-only position for staying in the EU and shunning everyone else. Claiming to be the only UK party that’s pro EU is cheap  and out of keeping with the times. Party before country is never a good look (as she did in voting with the Tories in the coalition on among others, tribunal fees)

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