What five hours in A&E taught me about politics and life

I have nothing for you on the SNP conference.

I missed Nicola Sturgeon’s speech entirely. I heard John Swinney’s rallying of the troops first thing on Saturday then Mhairi Black planting a steel toecap in the gonads of Iain Duncan Smith’s pension reforms.

Soon after, I took ill and ten minutes later found myself in Accident & Emergency at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.

Spoiler alert: I’m fine… ish. That’s not what this is about.

Nor is it about the hospital but bear with me, I’m setting the scene.

The new Queen Liz, the old Southern General, the Death Star – this being Scotland, we can’t even agree on what to call a hospital – is a spectacle of design and engineering. It is vast and bright and abuzz with activity; less a hospital than a city-state of modern medicine. It feels very far from Holyrood and debates about names and targets and ministerial competence.

I had expected to spend Saturday ensconced in the media room at the SECC, dashing out copy about pledges of investment, bashing of Westminster, denunciations of Labour. I was looking forward to it. This is my life; it’s what I do – and I love it. Instead I passed the afternoon peering into the world from a bay in A&E major.

This is what I saw and heard.

I traced the clinical hues of cerulean, cornflower, and teal Jackson Pollocked around the doctors’ station, with flecks of burgundy from consultants, those occasional visitors from Olympus. I interrogated the subcontinental lilts – India? Bangladesh? – of what the Home Office grudgingly calls “skilled migrants” but what are in fact the muscle that pumps the blood around the arteries of the NHS.

This is not a panegyric to NHS staff. “They should be paid more and given better hours…” Of course they should. We ought to have more rigorous performance metrics too. But back to the ward.

Around me the metallic humming and monotonous beeping, the reassuring tinnitus of life-saving technology. The sights and sounds of society on the edge. Love and hate and the love-hate alloy of frustration. Warm hugs and sharp words; domestic discord and bitter rows momentarily forgotten. Alcohol. Drugs. Women struggling with English – but that’s not why they won’t speak about the marks on their arms. People at the end of their natural lives and desperate souls determined on an early exit. All of life there to be witnessed in furtive glimpses past half-drawn acrylic.

This is no polemic about investment levels or the harmful, sometimes fatal, gaps between health and social care. If you are reading this, you are already versed in these debates.

What this is about is the people who are not reading this. And that – no false modesty – is the overwhelming majority of the country. It is about the distance between the SNP conference at the SECC and the Queen Liz Hospital, not a crisp three miles as Google Maps tells you but the difference almost between two worlds.

“A political journalist?” Smiling Nurse No. 1 chirped. “You must get sick of all these referendums.”

Smiling Nurse No. 2 didn’t realise there was an election in May. “Another one?”

Sick of them? Referendums are my idea of fun. I count down the days till an election the way others await the coming of the cup final or the opening of phone lines in the TV talent contest finale.

Politicians and commentators once lamented the public’s declining interest in government and now we fear an upturn in interest as large sections of public opinion across the West embrace populists and demagogues. But the greater threat to democratic cohesion is not to be found in citizens’ apathy or contempt but in the distance between those who live politics and those for whom it rarely intrudes on their lives.

Those of us who work in politics or write about it for a living are more detached from the general public than we realise. We are not the ones who inhabit a bubble; it’s they who go about their lives happily insulated from our strange obsessions. They don’t run a scorecard on First Minister’s Questions. It doesn’t matter if Willie Rennie got in a great line last week because if they watched (and they don’t) they would likely as not have no earthly idea who he is. That ministerial gaffe on Scotland 2016 that we gasped or hooted at may as well not have happened; the latest A&E waiting times, should they filter down, will do so only vaguely and without much context. (Incidentally, I have no complaints about the Queen Liz; I was in triage within ten minutes.)

The bubble is huge. It’s where life happens. We are the outsiders and arrogant exiles at that since we seldom deign to peer in. That is not to say that politicians and journalists don’t have lives and family crises and mortgages niggling at the backs of their minds. But we define ourselves against the public at large – as better informed, better read, more civic-minded.

We reckon we see the joints, the places where public policy and the political process connect to people’s lives. That the punters profess boredom or disgust with politics is their fault. They do not see the joints. It doesn’t occur to us that the joints may be defective.

The draw of the Sturgeons and the Trumps, the Corbyns and the Tsiprases is that they offer a connection. They recognise the gap between politicians and the public and claim to represent A Different Kind of Politics. Authenticity is probably irrelevant; deep down, cynical voters must know that a different kind of politician is still a politician. What appeals to them, as far as I can tell, is the informality, the puckish grin and knowing wink of a performer sending up the absurdity of their stuffy and rarefied profession.

So have I gone sap-headed? No. I’m unashamed of my addiction to process, my enjoyment of “political dirty talk” (© Paul Keating) is not going to diminish any time soon. But I think I learned more about politics as it relates to people’s lives in that A&E ward than I would have at the SNP conference.

What I learned is this: We are too far away from people. We need to get inside the bubble. That’s where politics can come to life, where the power to do more than tinker around the margins will be found. To be relevant again, politics has to be in the very roots of communities, where people can see its value and its impact.

Devolve more power from Westminster and Holyrood to localities. Break up supersized councils into smaller units that fit towns and villages. Norway, with a population of five million, is divided into more than 400 municipalities. Scotland, slightly more populous, is stretched between 32 local authorities. A system where you might bump into the politician responsible for your children’s school while out walking the dog has to be more trusted and respected than what we have now. And so on up the echelons of government.

The political centre is a difficult beast to love, prone to smugness and self-assurance. Long disdainful of the fringes, it has only latterly come to realise that it is now on the margins and the extremists and “anti-establishment” chancers at the heart of political life. There is no more important task today, for the democratic well-being of the West and the preservation of liberal values, than setting that trend in reverse. First, we have to close the gap.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © George Allison by Creative Commons 4.0.

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