I get locked down but I go up a tier again

Like a demented episode of The Price is Right, Nicola Sturgeon surveyed her five-tier, four-level lockdown system at Holyrood yesterday, and, despite the audience at home crying ‘ lower! lower!’, she went higher, losing us our pub rights and any chance at the Mini Metro and weekend break in Skegness.

The First Minister used her statement to outline which council areas would remain at Level 1 and which would be placed in full lockdown at Level 4. Glasgow, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire, East and West Dunbartonshire, North and South Lanarkshire, East and South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian would all come under the most stringent restrictions.

Hairdressers and non-essential shops and restaurants will be closed and guidance against travelling between tiers given the force of law. ‘If we see evidence… that people from Glasgow are going to Inverclyde,’ she warned, ‘we would have no choice but to consider Level 4.’

Pretty harsh. Isn’t being Inverclyde punishment enough?

The talk of ‘evidence’ didn’t mean any was produced, not least the grounds for thinking that this lockdown would succeed where previous ones had failed. The answer seems to be: because science. I’m all for science, though I prefer it to look and sound less like a government-funded horoscope.

‘For all areas in Level 1,’ Sturgeon went on, ‘it will be permissible from Thursday to meet outdoors with up to eight people from a maximum of three households.’ Unless the winter solstice falls on a blood moon, in which case it’s only four people and each has to throw a chicken over their shoulder before entering.

‘I am aware that some people will argue that schools should also be closed at Level 4,’ she continued. No doubt representations have been made by people with painted-on moustaches, cloaked in trench coats and looking suspiciously like one primary seven standing on another’s shoulders.

This was another part of the ‘science’ in need of explanation: why were pubs super-spreaders but not overcrowded classrooms full of coughing teenagers?

Sturgeon was more concerned with sounding upbeat. She said the measures would ‘not be in place for most of the Chanukah period’ and would also ‘create the prospect of seeing some loved ones at Christmas’.

There goes your excuse for dodging the in-laws this year.

Diplomatically, she said we were ‘in the midst of a global pandemic that is nobody’s fault’. I don’t know, I reckon the Chinese Communist Party should be keeping its head down a while longer.

Restrictions, she laboured, were part of a journey in which we ‘steer a path through the next few months towards brighter times’. Does the AA provide metaphor breakdown cover?

Eventually, though, Sturgeon the wound-poker couldn’t help herself. She boasted that ‘prevalence in Scotland’ was ‘ lower than in other UK nations’. That’s why half the population is being placed under house arrest.

My suspicion grows that the First Minister’s speechwriter is a frustrated lyricist yearning to start their own Billy Bragg tribute act. ‘Love and solidarity… will get us through this,’ Sturgeon closed her statement. ‘Soon we will be looking back on it/ not living through it/ so please try to stay strong/ please stick with it and stick together.’

Her most dogged tormentor was not Ruth Davidson but Lib Dem Mike Rumbles. He barracked the First Minister throughout the session until she protested to the Presiding Officer: ‘He is shouting repeatedly at me from a sedentary position.’ Clype.

It takes a lot to get a Lib Dem to raise their voice, though I did once witness a furious discussion of proportional representation in the bar at a party conference.

In these times we need someone to make a full-throated defence of liberty. That right there might be the worst aspect of Sturgeon’s handling of this crisis. She’s made the Liberal Democrats relevant again.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

How to bounce Boris into backing the Union

The challenge this weekend was to find anyone in government or the Tory Party with a good thing to say about Dominic Cummings. A box of Milk Tray to whoever managed, but it wasn’t me. You might expect that his internal opponents would be glad to see the back of him but even Leave-minded insiders I spoke to were relieved. Sad, of course, because they respected his abilities, and worried that this could mean a watering down of Brexit, but frustrated that his talent was not matched by the discipline required by government. 

Boris Johnson may be feeling a mix of emotions. For one, he has followed and practised politics long enough to know that the importance of a single adviser can be greatly inflated. Tony Blair’s premiership outlasted Alastair Campbell’s service by almost four years, including a historic third consecutive election victory. David Cameron similarly managed another four years plus an election win following the departure of Steve Hilton, the green guru who helped him rebrand the Tory Party before decamping to California and a career as a Trump-boosting host on Fox News. 

However, he knows too that Cummings has an uncommon strategic mind that helped guide Vote Leave and the 2019 Conservative election campaign to stunning victories. Tory MPs may not have liked him, but without him there wouldn’t have been as many of them around to disapprove. He certainly rubbed true blue Tories the wrong way but he understood how to talk to non-Tories and convince some of them to vote Tory for the first time. Not only must the Prime Minister face the most capable Labour leader since Tony Blair, now he must do so without his surrogate brain. 

That is not a concern weighing heavy on Scottish Tories, who run the gamut from fair chipper to positively ecstatic over Cummings’ resignation. The impact of his lockdown-breaking journey to Barnard Castle was repeatedly cited to me but so too was the conviction that he was unreliable on the Union. One party insider described the svengali’s removal as ‘a welcome move by the Prime Minister that can only help efforts to stop the SNP’, noting that Cummings’ Durham trip ‘enraged traditional Tory voters and handed the Nats a big stick with nails in it to beat the party and the Union’. An MSP, meanwhile, feared Cummings ‘would have seen independence as the ultimate experiment in disruption’ and ‘had no instinct for the Union and never even seemed to care’. 

However, both these insiders sounded the same note of caution: Cummings’ going would not heal what ails either the Tory Party in Scotland or the United Kingdom itself. The brimming ranks of prime ministerial excuse-makers deem this yet another thing that is not Boris Johnson’s fault. He’s as Unionist as they come, you see, but that crazy Dom cared more about Brexit and maybe even saw the SNP as a useful foil come the next election. It’s a curious line of defence: the Prime Minister has principles but he had to wait for his aide to resign to assert them. We are governed by weak men surrounded by people who will swear blind that weakness is a form of strength. 

We can be weak too, of course — too keen to wish away the challenges of our times. Dominic Cummings did not bring the Union to the brink and his leaving will not pull it back. Unionists need to stop telling themselves that every minor change in the political weather means a fair wind for the Union. It is a passive and pitiful way to go about advancing a cause. If you want the Union to endure, you have to elect leaders who believe in it and for whom it is a basic tenet of their political worldview. Nationalists may be increasingly frustrated with Nicola Sturgeon over the pace of travel towards a second referendum, but they do not doubt that she believes in one and that independence is the central animating principle of her politics. They do not settle for a juddering mass of indecision and cynicism and laziness. 

The Prime Minister needs to show that he cares about the Union and Unionists need to show him the consequences if he doesn’t. The rise of Ukip was a rebuke to the Tories for ignoring core vote concerns like Europe and immigration and eventually the Cameron-era party had to compromise with its own supporters. There are a clutch of no-hoper parties running on an anti-independence ticket in next May’s Holyrood election, but while they are implausible the idea behind them is not. There is a core Unionist vote in Scotland that crosses all other political divides and doesn’t ask for much — just no more referendums, no more powers, no more caving in to the SNP. For now, they mostly vote Tory and some Labour but a few more years, a Nationalist majority at Holyrood and talk of a second referendum at Westminster could provide fertile ground for a single-issue pro-Union party looking to elbow its way in on the Holyrood list. 

The electoral fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives are unlikely to trouble the Prime Minister’s thoughts. The only consequences that will motivate him are those that touch on his personal and political standing. If the Union is lost on his watch, that is what the history books will recount him for. His only other achievement, Brexit, will be cast as historic folly, not the stepping out into the world of a global Britain but a retraction into a Little England with which the Scots (and, perhaps, the Welsh and Northern Irish) wanted nothing to do. He would have broken Britain. 

Johnson does not want to be remembered in the same breath as Eden and Chamberlain, so Unionists would be wise to appeal to the twin impulses that govern so many victims of public schooling: fear and vanity. The Prime Minister fears the Scottish constitutional question clogging up his domestic agenda and puts it off as a child puts off his homework. The task for Unionists is to make clear that the constitutional question is one for the whole UK, not just Scotland, and that avoiding it will only make matters worse. 

Just as the SNP makes its case to the rest of the country through the London media, Scottish Unionists should do the same and communicate a blunt message: independence would mean as much chaos for England as it would for Scotland. The future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent would be in Nicola Sturgeon’s hands. The British position in international trade talks would be severely undermined. The EU would have a new border along the Tweed and the upper hand in fresh border negotiations. Instead of hoping the Prime Minister will eventually swing in behind the Union, force his hand by making independence a headache for him in England as well as Scotland. 

Once his attention has been gained, give him the opportunity to remedy the problem. This will require him to become much more involved in constitutional matters than at present, when a prime minister’s time is already scant and jealously fought over, not least in the middle of a pandemic. He will have to be tough, creative, open-minded but determined. The effort will be exacting, the hours gruelling and the brickbats plenty and fast-flying. The prize, however, is to be known as the saviour of the Union, the leader who saw off the separatist threat and redeemed Brexit along the way. The man who kept the kingdom united. 

The Prime Minister’s diary is bulging and it will not be obvious to him or those around him how to begin. There is someone who has already shown the start of a way forward, someone who, incidentally, warned six months ago that Dominic Cummings had become a liability, and even resigned his own government post to make the point. Since then, Douglas Ross has found himself a new job and is settling into it well. The Scottish Tory leader has so far given two strong speeches about the Union and how to repair it. The Prime Minister should begin by reading them.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

Upbeat lockdown

The First Minister’s latest Covid update to parliament was an uncanny affair. MSPs heard that, although ‘we do still face tough times ahead’, there were ‘also grounds for optimism now’.

Reports of the Pfizer vaccine were ‘really good news’ and ‘extremely encouraging’ — ‘and that of course is not the only vaccine undergoing trials just now!’ It was ‘the most positive indication yet that science will get us out of this.’ 

This was not Nicola Sturgeon. It looked like her, moved like her, even did that weird little chuckle she does, but there was no way this was the First Minister. Maybe it was one of those Blade Runner deals where Harrison Ford got replaced by an android. This replicant was a good effort but altogether too upbeat to pass as our First Minister.   

‘We are not at the end of the tunnel yet,’ she waxed, ‘but a glimmer of light has appeared. Yes, there will still be dips in the road, and that means the light might be obscured at times. But it is very much there and we are heading towards it.’  

We hadn’t quite arrived at the broad, sunlit uplands but we were pulling into the motorway services two miles down the road.

The cod Churchillian language felt alien to Sturgeon’s natural speaking rhythms, which are more pedestrian and precise than Winnie’s rousing booms, and sounded like it had been written to satisfy a speechwriter’s vanity rather than enhance the speechmaker’s message.

(This is not to unduly single out Nicola Sturgeon. There is a dearth of good rhetoric in Scottish politics, where most ministers orate like the beleaguered complaints manager of a provincial leisure centre and most opposition MSPs like the complainers.)  

Nevertheless, it’s hard to knock the artifice of her wording when the words themselves were such a lung-clearing relief to hear: ‘The sacrifices everyone is making are hard — and they feel never-ending — but they are helping. They have made a difference, and they are saving lives. I have no doubt about that, and no one should be in doubt about that.’ 

If it means I can order a pint at some point in the next year without having to provide the barman my name, address, credit score and grandmother’s first school report card, then the First Minister can try to pass herself off as Churchill, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama for all I care.

She can even give us her best Vera Lynn — ‘At some point, this will all be over; at some point, we will be looking back on it rather than living through it’ — but it would be more jolly all round if she got into the spirit of things and delivered such lines with a piano solo.  

Of course, it couldn’t all be cheerful song and Sturgeon treated us to the old Covid songbook standards: ‘This is not the time to let down our guard’ and ‘We can look forward to brighter days in the spring’. For now, the sacrifice would endure.

Three council areas — Fife, Angus and Perth and Kinross — would be bumped up to tier three and with that their pubs would be forbidden to sell booze. This would be particularly grievous for residents of Perthshire, who will continue to have Pete Wishart as their MP but lose the necessary fortifications required to endure such tribulations.

Fortune was more favourable to residents of Orkney, Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar, who would now ‘be able to meet one other household inside their homes, up to a strict maximum of six people’. Don’t all rush to organise a cèilidh at once.  

North East Fife MSP Willie Rennie was none too pleased about his region being put on the lockdown naughty step. ‘Fife will want to know what we’ve got wrong,’ he complained to the First Minister.  

So many potential answers. Wisely, she avoided all of them. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

BBC cannot be an arm of Sturgeon’s PR operation

There is nothing Nicola Sturgeon loves more than posing as an international stateswoman. She may struggle to get Jacinda Ardern to reply to her tweets but Donald Trump’s post-election tantrum gave her an opportunity to share her wisdom with the world.

Asked last Wednesday about the US presidential election, which Trump has yet to concede, the First Minister declared: ‘What is most important right now is the integrity of American democracy… I won’t be the only one who listened to the President’s speech earlier with a sense of discomfort and foreboding and I hope sensible voices in America come to the fore in terms of the protection of the integrity of democracy.’

All very laudable and I don’t disagree with her. My problem is where I saw her make her remarks: on BBC Scotland’s live broadcast of the daily Covid-19 update. As I understood it, the Corporation was giving the First Minister a regular slot to keep the public informed about the pandemic and the Scottish Government’s response to it.

Donald Trump may be doing nothing good for everyone’s blood pressure, but what does his futile foot-stomping have to do with a health crisis in Scotland?

Few will want to risk being accused of defending Trump, but Sturgeon’s use of her BBC platform to offer commentary on his political conduct should trouble those who care about democratic norms and the independence of the BBC.

If this was an isolated incident, it wouldn’t matter all that much, but there is a clear pattern of the First Minister taking advantage of her broadcast slot to make political statements and promote her government’s wider agenda.

This is not about pedantry and not even about politics, really. It is about the judgment of senior editorial staff and executives at BBC Scotland. They know this themselves, for they attempted to curtail these broadcasts then retreated under pressure from Nationalists.

I don’t blame Nicola Sturgeon. Like any politician, she is going to exploit whatever platform she gets and answer whatever questions she wants. The people at fault are the Pacific Quay management who would rather jeopardise the BBC’s reputation than get on the wrong side of the SNP.

BBC Scotland is home to some fine and hard-working journalists. The actions of their higher-ups should not be allowed to reflect poorly on reporters and other editorial staff who take the Corporation’s charter seriously.

It is those higher-ups who took fright at the campaign of intimidation waged against BBC Scotland during the 2014 referendum and, instead of defending its journalists and their output, decided to appease their detractors. As such, BBC Scotland has spent the past six years trying to ingratiate itself with the Scottish establishment, whose ranks were already well represented at Pacific Quay.

The effect can be seen on air in some of the programming of the BBC Scotland channel and positively bursts from BBC The Social, but nothing is quite as blatant as giving the First Minister, in effect, her own daily TV show.

In the early days of the pandemic, when everything was new and it was essential to reassure the public, this was a sensible decision. Since then, red flags have shot up repeatedly and each time they have been ignored by BBC Scotland.

On July 1, Sturgeon used the broadcast to assail remarks by the Prime Minister on the England-Scotland border as ‘absurd and ridiculous political comments’ and added that for ‘a prime minister or secretary of state… to try to politicise these things is shameful’.

Again identifying the Prime Minister, Secretary of State and also the Scottish Tory leader, she said: ‘If you find yourselves trying to turn any of this into a political or a constitutional argument, go and take a long, hard look at yourself in a mirror and, if you’re being honest with yourself, you will admit that you’re failing people – or risking failing people.’

During that same briefing, Sturgeon singled out three newspapers (all centre-right, all pro-Union) and attacked their coverage: ‘The front page of the Express or the Mail or the Telegraph tomorrow… I could probably write them right now myself. They can say what they like…’

On October 20, Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville was brought in to announce money for local authorities to address financial insecurity and fund free school meals over the holidays.

These transfers were addressing the knock- on effects of the pandemic but they were not a public health matter in themselves. How do I know this? Because Shirley-Anne Somerville said so, prefacing her announcement with the words: ‘Whilst the pandemic remains first and foremost a public health emergency, we know that it is causing increasing financial pressure for many people.’

On November 3, Somerville again joined the First Minister on the broadcast to unveil her decision to ‘prioritise the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment’. This new benefit was a ‘key element of our Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan’, the Cabinet Secretary said. There is no reference to Covid-19 in that plan and no wonder – it was published in 2018.

Somerville added that stakeholders had branded the policy a ‘game-changer’. It may well be but the game it intends to change has nothing to do with coronavirus, even if the payment is being expedited under its auspices.

The First Minister is at liberty to take as many digs as she likes at the Prime Minister or the opposition. But the BBC is under no obligation to participate in – indeed, it is under a charter obligation not to participate in – what amounts to early campaigning for the 2021 Scottish parliament election.

The regulated period for that poll kicks in 58 days from now, the timeframe in which broadcasters must adhere to more stringent than usual rules on balance. That the BBC continues to afford a live daily platform to the leader of one political party, even as she uses that platform to made partisan statements, is difficult to justify even in the context of a pandemic. Elections do not take place only on polling day. Policies are weighed up, performances judged and opinions formed over the preceding months.

The SNP grasps this, which is why Nicola Sturgeon is the face of these briefings and not Health Secretary Jeane Freeman. Sturgeon’s sympathisers may say such electoral considerations should be set aside during a pandemic, but that should only be the case if the election is being set aside too.

Even if the First Minister restricted herself to Covid-19 matters, the provision of this daily platform would be dubious six months out from polling day. The Scottish Government’s handling of coronavirus – from its dumping of infected elderly patients into care homes to its withholding information on the Edinburgh Nike conference – is sure to be a major issue.

Yet BBC Scotland is permitting the SNP leader to retail her policies and performance to voters without questioning from MSPs, let alone other party leaders. BBC Scotland has allowed itself to be corralled into Nicola Sturgeon’s re-election campaign. No wonder some pro-Union voters brand it ‘BBC Sturgeon’.

The Corporation has done some fine work during this pandemic but its journalists’ efforts are being undermined by a management so bent on pandering to one side of politics it appears oblivious to the growing discontent on the other.

If that management does not withdraw or refashion Nicola Sturgeon’s political platform, the opposition parties and their supporters will have no alternative but to enter the complaints process.

For those of us who support the BBC, it was heartbreaking to witness it under assault in 2014 and would be even more painful to see a second front open up from the other direction. But the decisions being taken by the Corporation’s executives are making such an outcome ever more likely. If BBC Scotland is going to play politics, it will get politics in return.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © Batchelor at English Wikipedia by Creative Commons 3.0.

Unhappy hour

There was something mildly Calvinist about Nicola Sturgeon, as she stood there dividing the Elect and the reprobate into their respective tiers, pronouncing judgement on their drinking establishments as she went.  

Much of the central belt was slung in Tier 3, which means pubs have to close at 6pm and are forbidden to sell booze. It turns out there is something more lonesome, morbid and drear: standing in the bar of a pub full of beer but being required by law to order a soda and lime.  

Lanarkshire narrowly escaped Tier 4 after what Sturgeon called ‘a borderline decision’. For the home of Albion Rovers and Airdrieonians, having a borderline decision go in their favour will have been an exciting new experience.

However, the First Minister pleaded with locals to ‘help ensure that the rise in cases continues to slow’. Not that there’s anything still open in Lanarkshire. At this point, a pub lock-in involves breaking out the dandelion and burdock at half-six while someone keeps watch on the door for a passing constable.  

To help us resist temptation, she warned: ‘I cannot rule out a move back to nationwide restrictions in the next few weeks, including at level 4’. That was for really serious incidents, like ICU wards being overwhelmed or SNP MPs buying cross-country rail tickets.  

Richard Leonard thought it was ‘clear that some local communities are at a lower tier than was predicted but some are at a higher tier than was predicted’. He wanted to know what economic measures would be put in place to protect jobs and businesses, especially in Tier 3.

There would be a bigger impact on jobs and the economy if the virus went unchecked, she responded, pointing to the situation in France and Germany. The gist was that there would be no extra money, though Sturgeon took the opportunity to have a dig at the Chancellor’s job support scheme: ‘I think that Richard Leonard and I agree that it should go further, but it is there for businesses to take advantage of.’ 

All was forgiven and forgotten a few questions later when Labour’s Colin Smyth raised the plight of pubs in his region that, lacking beer gardens and kitchen facilities, would be forced to close even when their tier designation didn’t require it.

Suddenly, Rishi Sunak wasn’t a monster after all. Sturgeon said: ‘I agree that we have to support all businesses, not just those that are legally required to close. The job support scheme does that by having different strands for businesses that are required to close and those that are not.’

Cold comfort for landlords, though she sounded pretty impassive. She’s shut more pubs than the temperance movement.  

There was a telling moment with Willie Rennie. The Lib Dem leader interrogated the decision to transfer Covid-infected patients from hospitals to care homes, noting Sturgeon’s ‘carefully chosen words’ on the matter.

She offered a rote apology, then added: ‘The one thing I will always, not through carefully chosen words but through emotion probably more than anything else, rail against is the idea that we were somehow not caring about what happened in care homes.’ 

Did you catch it? Rennie did: ‘I didn’t challenge on the motives. It’s the facts and the decisions that we all want to get to.’  

Asked a question about something tangible (government actions and their consequences), Sturgeon had pivoted to something intangible: her feelings. She would not allow anyone to suggest she didn’t care and it didn’t matter that no one had suggested anything of the sort.

She deftly moved the conversation from her performance to her character and by implication critics of the former were impugning the latter. The audience for this sleight of hand was not in the chamber but in living rooms across the country. She governs like a politician but talks like a regular person. That’s how she gets away with it.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Nicola Sturgeon and the dead-eyed Yesbots

Sometimes you can’t beat a Left-wing firebrand.  Elaine Smith is an old-school socialist who speaks her mind where others might tread more delicately. There was nothing delicate about the Labour MSP’s broadside against the Scottish Government ahead of yesterday’s sham debate on Covid restrictions.

MSPs were meant to get a proper debate and a vote but ministers pulled a fast one.  Smith used a procedural gambit to hold up parliamentary business and, although she knew her efforts would be in vain, she took her chance to tell the First Minister exactly what she thought about her performance of late.  

She inveighed against the ‘completely unacceptable’ decision to keep parliament in the dark about ‘draconian’ new rules while briefing them to journalists. It was vital that MSPs could ‘scrutinise the effectiveness of the strict 16-day restrictions Scotland had been subjected to’ and said she had even tried to have parliament recalled last week to discuss the matter.  

Smith was calm but unrelenting, rebuking ministers for their failure to consult while pouring scorn on the results of lockdown so far: ‘It’s not short and sharp because it doesn’t seem to have worked’. 

Noting the impact on the hospitality sector, she ended with a plea to the rest of the chamber to take a stand, railing against the U-turn that denied MSPs a say. ‘We are merely observers,’ she decried. ‘What is the point in voting on the motion when we are being asked simply to note the government’s decisions?’

Finally, with a despairing sigh: ‘Why are other parties going along with that?’ 

It’s difficult to gauge the mood in the chamber these days but Smith was swiftly voted down, so her cri de coeur evidently failed to impress. Still, it was a tonic to see someone stick their head above the parapet and remind forelock-tugging MSPs how real parliaments are meant to behave.  

When the debate proper got under way, Ruth Davidson told the First Minister she objected to the SNP motion ‘taking a swipe at the UK Government’ — but the Tories would be voting for it anyway. That’ll show ’em. Davidson at least brought along some practical ideas: a Covid business advisory council, improvements to data collection and a festive loneliness strategy.  

Mind you, the latter is redundant. The First Minister has no intention of being depicted as the Grinch who stole Christmas. Whatever ministers say today, a way will be found to allow the masses to guzzle down their overcooked turkey and cremated roasties while raising a grateful glass to the founder of the feast, Ebenezer Sturgeon.  

Not that she needs any more adulation. The self-congratulation is nearing Trumpian levels. ‘I’ve probably answered more questions than any leader of any government anywhere else in the world,’ she told Richard Leonard. She’s a great question-answerer — the greatest. Anyone saying otherwise is fake news.  

When UK ministers dodged parliamentary scrutiny, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle read them the riot act. Yesterday, Ken Macintosh read out a statement with all the passion of a printer instructions manual. He is resigning at the next election, becoming the first presiding officer to vacate the chair before anyone noticed he was in it.  

One after another the dead-eyed Yesbots got up to ‘fully welcome this strategic framework’ — the same pre-programmed turn of phrase was buzzed out each time. Fulton MacGregor, one of the newer-model automatons, cited a conversation with a worried medic and prated: ‘We must listen to people on the frontline’.

Neil Findlay, another stalwart of the Old Labour awkward squad, intervened to ask if he agreed that, as well as listening to frontline workers, we should also be regularly testing them. ‘Test and Protect is working well in Scotland,’ droned Dalek MacGregor. 

Richard Leonard spoke of the plight of the hospitality sector and insisted that ‘some parts of the night time economy can be kept open’. It’s come to a pretty pass when the doughtiest defenders of Scottish business are all members of the Campaign for Socialism. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

The Union is in crisis. Can anyone save it?

There is a crisis in Unionism. It did not begin with polls showing a majority for independence, or the arrival of Boris Johnson, or even Brexit, though the latter has sprayed accelerant on the flames. The unravelling of the United Kingdom began with legislative devolution in 1999.

Devolution was not a bad policy; in principle, local control is often more desirable than the remote diktats of centralised bureaucracy. The fault lay in the design of the settlement, which lacked safeguards against the misuse of devolved institutions to undermine devolution and replace it with independence. Devolution was a grand palace with the keys left under the plant pot. 

When the SNP took control of the Scottish Executive and immediately renamed it ‘the Scottish Government’, the direction of travel was clear. Instead of confronting the problem, successive UK governments adopted the time-honoured stance of the ostrich. And that was when they were being resolute; at other times, they favoured the composure of the headless chicken, fleeing this way and that, before clucking triumphantly about their latest transfer of powers to a demonstrably broken system.

Churchill said appeasement was feeding the crocodile in hope of being eaten last, but the Tories’ approach (and Labour’s is identical) is to plate up the Union limb-by-limb in hope the crocodile will eventually get indigestion and leave something behind.

David Cameron served the crocodile a referendum on its chosen terms and two tranches of new powers either side of it. In doing so, he tacitly endorsed the proposition that, although the constitution is reserved, the SNP can override this by sticking reserved matters in its Holyrood manifestos. Cameron effectively devolved devolution to its adversaries, putting the SNP in charge of the parameters of the settlement and withdrawing the UK Government from the enforcement of its terms. 

At the same time, he attempted to sate the Tory Right with English Votes for English Laws and an EU referendum. Politics is so fractured and tribal on the pro-Union side that there are Unionists adamant Cameron was wrong to cave in to Scottish nationalism and Unionists adamant he was wrong to cave into English nationalism but precious few who say he was wrong to cave into either. Concessions are statesmanship when you approve of them and appeasement when you don’t. 

A memo leaked earlier this week suggests Downing Street wants to chuck immigration and additional financial competencies into the crocodile’s jaws. All that will do is what it has done before: energise the separatists to go further. Come next May’s Holyrood election, the SNP manifesto will include a provision on another referendum and if (or rather when) the Nationalists win they will claim another mandate. 

One prime minister’s frail resolve and strategic myopia should not bind his successors. Boris Johnson ought to take the Theresa May approach and reject out of hand demands for another plebiscite. As he does, he should explicitly repudiate Cameron’s foolish stance and reassert both the original terms of the devolution settlement and the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. 

‘No’ is necessary but it is no longer sufficient. Unionism has to be about more than preventing independence. A life spent on the defensive is no life at all. Unionists need a vision for Scotland’s future as part of the United Kingdom. Why is the Union important? How can it be strengthened? Where does it go from here? 

I have long maintained that Scottish nationalism is philosophically barren, a spasm passing for an ideal. It is a theology of division with one hymn and one note: the Union is the original sin that created all of Scotland’s ills and national redemption requires that it be cast out. But Unionism, too, has grown empty and directionless, its doctrines loosed from conviction and hewing to whichever passing principle seems most likely to hold the nationalists at bay a while longer. 

Part of the problem is the calibre of political party representing the cause. One of them even bills itself the Conservative and Unionist Party, a description that should have given rise to a Trading Standards investigation years ago. The Tories lost the argument on devolution in 1997 and have yet to come up with another since. There is no Conservative theory of devolution, no wrestling with the constitutional consequences of Labour’s blueprint.

This is not helped by ineffective and unassertive policy advisors. Number 10 has its own ‘Union unit’, though I can’t discern whether it’s meant to be pro- or anti-. Given some of the decisions to come out of Downing Street of late, it is doing a better job recruiting Yes voters than Nicola Sturgeon ever has.

South of the Border, Conservatives have come to see the Union as a matter for Scotland alone, conveniently enough at the very point when their policy agenda is brimming with schemes organised around ideological self-indulgence rather than the interests of national unity. These Tories may rail against Sturgeon from the green benches but they are doing her work for her. 

Worse, there are some — including figures close to the Prime Minister — who do not want to defeat the SNP. They see Sturgeon as a convenient bogeywoman to scare Middle England out of voting Labour in 2024; a revival of the poster of Ed Miliband in the SNP leader’s pocket, with Sir Keir Starmer photoshopped over his predecessor.

It is a cynical and short-termist calculation and betrays a disregard for the future of the United Kingdom that ought to be incompatible with service in a Tory government. No Conservative should ever gamble with the Union to win an election, but then there are any number of characters in Downing Street who are not Conservatives. 

The UK Tories have to decide if they are still a Unionist party. Some already see Scotland as a fiscal millstone around England’s neck, rather than an integral part of the United Kingdom, and this tendency is gaining momentum. The canniest minds in the SNP have always understood that independence is as much about turning England against Scotland as Scotland against England. They are succeeding on both fronts. 

If the Conservatives’ problems lie mostly at Westminster and Number 10, the inverse is true for Labour.

Sir Keir has inherited a Scottish party going through an institutional nervous breakdown for a decade now. Scottish Labour’s problems began shortly after its greatest triumph: the formalisation of its fiefdom via a parliament and an executive. The man who helped convince Tony Blair that this was wise, Donald Dewar, died one year into the experiment. His untimely passing robbed devolution of its architect before the scaffolding was even down. 

Since then, the building has been squatted in by its foes, who present as the guardians of a settlement they daily work to undermine. Labour’s response has mostly broken off in two directions. The first are those motivated by tribal hatred of the SNP rather than a substantive argument against its goal. Their ‘No’ is a dead No, lacking ideas, or even curiosity, for reforming devolution or making the Union work better for Scotland.

The second group are those who cringe before the SNP’s frown and accept that independence is inevitable, or even a welcome development that would allow Scottish Labour to escape the constitution and become once more a viable party of government.

Unfortunately, for the pro-Union movement to return to strength, these two parties will have to get their houses in order.

The UK Tories have to reacquaint themselves with the Union they claim to revere. The appearance of the word ‘Unionist’ in the party’s name is a reference to Irish home rule, not Scottish, but it is also an admonition that this party is not an English nationalist party. It is meant to stand for broader values and a greater number of people than the population of the Home Counties. The Prime Minister, let us not forget, styles himself ‘Minister for the Union’ and occasionally even visits the parts that lie outwith SW1. 

To rediscover their Unionism, Conservatives must become conservatives again. A populist or nationalist party cannot hope to govern the UK because its appeal will always be to the values and instincts of the largest population. A narrow and insular politics of English identity is as incompatible with Unionism as the mean-spirited parochialism of the SNP.

The changes Scottish Labour needs to undergo will be a more personal grief. Two decades after his death, Donald Dewar enjoys a sainthood of sorts within this party, a deference that holds Labour back from taking a more open-minded — and more politically useful — assessment of his legacy. Instead of standing him on a pedestal, Scottish Labour should critically examine his legacy to learn from both his qualities and his flaws. 

Dewar was a patriot, a hard worker, a canny strategist, and someone who knew how to keep the Nationalists at bay. But he was also arrogant, aloof, and made fundamental errors in the structuring of devolution. Because his motivation was as much the forging of a power base for himself as it was the founding of a new way of governing Scotland, Dewar was the framer of a settlement heavy on executive power and light on checks and balances, a system that drastically empowered Holyrood at the expense of Westminster under the assumption that the former would always be run by parties sympathetic towards, or willing to tolerate, the latter. 

These arrangements were the practical outgrowth of Dewar’s theory that the United Kingdom would be strengthened (or at least not fatally undermined) by giving institutional structure to its regional political differences. With hindsight, this was historic folly but it was not Dewar’s alone. His theory was shared by almost every Labour and Liberal Democrat politician as well as academia, the civil service and the mainstream media. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was scarcely a more widely held shibboleth. 

Yet, respect for Dewar’s memory cannot occlude the fact that his grand project, in the form it took, is why we are where we are today. His devolution is why the SNP has been in power for 13 years and may well be for 13 years more and another 13 after that. It is why Nicola Sturgeon can dominate a minority parliament in a way that Boris Johnson could only dream of with his landslide majority. It is why the SNP has been able to weaponise a faultily drafted settlement against the very letter and purpose of that settlement. 

Donald Dewar was a fine politician but a terrible founding father, one whose founding did not survive his death by even a decade. There are Labour veterans involved in the Holyrood project who concede behind closed doors that they failed to take seriously the threat of the SNP capturing the institutions of devolution. Private admissions are all well and good but integrity demands these grandees make their remorse public and help to right their wrongs.

If Scottish Labour wants to become relevant again, it need not abandon the Union on the wishful assumption that the voters will be waiting with open arms on the other side of independence. Instead, it should learn from the best of Donald Dewar while unlearning the worst of his legacy. Scottish Labour should be a party that expresses patriotism through values and vision, not constitutional policy. Labour ought to be the champion of a return to hard work and excellence in Scottish public life, to integrity in government, to the accountability of the powerful. 

It should confront the full-time independence campaign and occasional government in St Andrew’s House and tell it to get its finger out or get out of office. Scottish Labour cannot be more Scottish than the SNP but it can be more Labour. That does not mean a lurch to the fringe left but rather a revival of the sensible, social democratic Scottish Labour that, though drab and managerial, actually got things done.  

Even with these two parties back on sounder footing, Unionists would have to think hard about what they believe, why and how they hope to achieve it. A great deal of laziness has crept into how opponents of independence talk about the Union. On this side of the Border, we must stop framing the case as a financial transaction by hymning the glories of the unfair and outdated Barnett formula. Subsidy unionism irritates the English and is more likely to push Scots in the direction of nationalism. Pride is a pittance in the pocket but a bounty in the soul. 

Down south, believers in the Union will have to do more than believe and start to practically support it. The Union is a shared endeavour and it cannot be maintained by one side alone. The UK Government must think as such — a government for all of the UK, not just the south-east and the more affluent parts of London. 

A fundamental question underlies all this: what exactly is the Union? We know it cannot be constitutional structures and fiscal subvention alone, but what else is there that unites the people of our four nations? The first order of business is forging a shared sense of identity, a passport of the head and the heart that draws on history but appeals to the future and reflects our evolution into a multi-racial society.

We need a common culture of belonging, shared reference points that remind us who we are and how we are connected to one another. The SNP has been effective at enlarging its version of Scottishness at the expense of a more fluid identity and so the Union requires a broad and easy UK identity that is more appealing than mono-nationalism. 

There is a crisis in Unionism and it is a crisis of confidence. Voters like confidence and nationalists have it because they know what they believe. There must be an end to defensive unionism, the hand-wringing angst and compulsive concession-making that has only emboldened the separatists. Unionists must believe in the Union and give the people a Union they can believe in too.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay.

The economy must reopen for business — now

The economy has taken on the character of a Thomas Hardy novel. We are aware something grim is coming, the only question is when. At some point, Sue Bridehead will go into the children’s bedroom, Tess will face the hangman and Wildeve and Eustacia will be taken by the depths of Shadwater Weir. At some point, too, the coronavirus economy will succumb with Hardy-esque inevitability to the tragedy of mass unemployment. 

There is an unspoken consensus that we should not talk about this for now. It is challenging enough to herd the population through the labyrinth of regulations and restrictions without telling them that the end point is likelier to be Universal Credit than a universal vaccine. Putting off the facts, however, does not change them. Bad times are coming and the country appears wholly unprepared for their impact. 

However else ministers have handled Covid-19, one example of smart and effective policy has been Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). As of last month, 9.6million posts had been furloughed under the programme, which has meant the difference between dignity and the dole for families across the country and allowed small business owners to make it through the last seven gruelling months.

It may seem ironic that a Tory chancellor has given us all a lesson in the virtues of state interference in the market but in a time of acute crisis Sunak’s initiative has kept the UK economy afloat. 

The problem is that it cannot go on forever. Conservatives are fond of quoting the Margaret Thatcher aphorism that socialist governments ‘always run out of other people’s money’, but the same eventuality awaits any government that continues to spend while failing to grow (indeed, artificially depressing) the economy.

Sunak has pushed public sector net debt above £2trillion for the first time and into excess of GDP for the first time since 1961. Labour governments may run out of money but this Tory government will soon run out of IOU slips. 

When that happens, the UK will be confronted with social and economic straits most of us assumed had been relegated to the history books and old Pathe newsreel footage. Mass joblessness and bankruptcy or sequestration, the failure of thousands or more businesses, and knock-on effects including an eruption in homelessness, crime and physical and mental ill-health. Alarmist though it might sound, this is what happens when an economy collapses and government is no longer able or willing to prop it up. 

Nor would the fallout end in our pocketbooks and mortgage agreements. A return to 1930s-style unemployment could bring with it a revival of 1930s-style politics. That is why those who harbour an ideological objection to the CJRS (and even the more modest Job Support Scheme that will soon take its place) are dabbling in reckless fantasy of a kind that would devastate the lives and wellbeing of millions of families. Leave the performative libertarianism to Young Tory after-dinner speeches. 

Writing in the Mail last week, Dr Stuart McIntyre, head of research at the Fraser of Allander Institute, credited the CJRS with saving around 800,000 jobs in Scotland alone. He noted that it is ‘only as government financial support is phased out that the full effects of the pandemic on the jobs market crisis will start to hit home’.

The respected economist warned that steady unemployment figures were a product of the Treasury’s interventions and that the true costs of lockdown — already hinted at in a 49 per cent spike in redundancies and a 40 per cent plummet in vacancies UK-wide — would only become apparent after the Chancellor withdrew his fiscal life support. 

‘We must tackle the public health crisis with appropriate restrictions to contain the virus,’ Dr McIntyre cautioned. ‘But we must also act to combat the looming economic crisis.’

This is why it is vital that we begin to reopen the economy promptly. It will not be easy; public opinion is heavily on the side of caution. A Channel 4 poll published yesterday found 61 per cent of Britons support ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdowns and while 30 per cent cite their finances as the their biggest concern during the pandemic, twice as many say it is the risk to their health. Almost half want the government to spend more money saving jobs and businesses. 

The public can hardly be blamed for worrying when politicians and public health advisors have spent the seven months telling them to worry in daily TV adverts and social media warnings. There was and remains cause to be concerned but the authorities may have made the country too alert — that is, scared out of its wits.

Strong leadership and level-headed communication by the experts will be needed to coax people back out of this state of national fright. We cannot go on living our lives like Thomas Hardy’s wretched creations, caught up in the relentless march of fate, unable to direct our own lives and waiting for dread Providence to arrive at our door. 

The response to Covid-19 must be bifurcated into a health strategy and an economic strategy, neither of which should take priority over the other. The health strategy should be dedicated to suppression and eventual eradication of the virus while the economic plan directs its efforts to resuscitating the private sector.

In practice, this would mean managing the virus based on risk and demography, perhaps by applying lockdowns and other restrictions on the basis of individual factors (age, co-morbidities, household composition) rather than the current one-size-fits-all model. 

Younger, healthier people could be at greater liberty to work from the office, socialise and travel, while those in greater jeopardy from Covid continue to be kept safe. This would be a welcome development not only for the individuals in question but for sectors of the economy — including hospitality and tourism — which cannot sustain themselves through much more of the blanket approach. Those at the least risk from coronavirus would regain some, though not all, of their freedoms while businesses would regain some, though not all, of their customer base. 

By splitting health and economic wellbeing into two separate priorities, it would be easier to pursue each without feeling hindered by the other. We could continue to tackle coronavirus while ensuring we still have a dynamic economy for workers to return to once all are able. The inevitability of coming out of a pandemic and into an economic and social catastrophe would no longer seem quite so inevitable. 

*****

Good on ya, Jacinda Ardern. Over the weekend, New Zealand’s prime minister won a second, landslide term for her Labour Party. 

The 40-year-old has attracted admirers the world over for her focus on growing quality of life as much as the economy and for making a dent in New Zealand’s housing, child poverty and mental health problems. 

Although her ministry marked a break from her predecessor’s in terms of policy, she has striven to bring people together rather than sow division. She also appears to regard government as an opportunity to make people’s lives better rather than a mechanism for accruing power for herself. 

Surveying Ardern’s character and priorities, it’s hard not to acknowledge the parallels with a rather prominent woman in Scottish politics. Kezia Dugdale, a friend of the victorious Kiwi, was among the most talented politicians of her generation. Ardern’s success is her own, of course, but it feels like a glimpse of what could have been in Scotland had the lots fallen differently. 

*****

At least 20 police officers on the Dundee force have had to self-isolate following a seven-a-side football game. The boys in blue and their spouses were ordered into quarantine after one of the players subsequently tested positive for Covid-19. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: exercise is bad for your health. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay.

Sturgeon lacks empathy for small business owners

I can recall my first trip to the cinema as though I was holding the ticket stub in front of me: My Girl 2. Summer 1994. The Odeon at the Parkhead Forge. It wasn’t a great movie – really a weak retread of the original designed to rake in more box office cash – but the experience sparked a lifelong affection for the flicks.

A cinema is more than an auditorium and overpriced popcorn. Each is a dream factory where young (and not-so-young) minds are exposed to the thrilling possibilities of art and life in 90 minutes of suspended disbelief.

Whether you first toddled along, jam jar tucked under your arm, to marvel at Roy Rogers riding Trigger into battle, or queued amid a fog of hairspray and hormones to trill along to Grease, or were taken to the multiplex by your parents to ogle in wonder at the magic of Harry Potter, you too may have been hooked by the fantasy that life could be as bright and bold as those images on screen.

For true cinephiles, the habit is hard to break. The cinema-goer is caught, in the words of French critic Roland Barthes, in a ‘twilight reverie’ which ‘leads him from street to street, from poster to poster, finally burying himself in a dim, anonymous, indifferent cube where that festival of affects known as a film will be presented’.

That reverie has been rudely awakened by coronavirus and the measures taken to slow its spread.

Last week, Boris Johnson urged us to visit our local cinema but not before Cineworld, which employs 5,500 Britons, announced the temporary closure of its 127 UK branches, or before Odeon announced it would be opening weekends-only at some locations.

Movie theatres have been left with less product than usual thanks to Covid-19’s impact on filming, and the decision to postpone the next Bond film, No Time To Die, until 2021 has not helped.

But Cineworld and Odeon are experiencing the same uncertainty affecting much smaller firms across the economy. While it’s welcome to hear the Prime Minister encourage support for cinemas, it does sound like the person who unlocked the gate in the first place trying to refasten it after the departure of the horse.

The frequency with which rules and guidance have changed, and the general alarm that restrictions and rhetoric have fostered, have meant all the expensive refits to make cinemas safe have been a waste of money.

Other firms don’t have such deep pockets, and the haphazard execution of lockdown on either side of the border has left some questioning whether their shop or restaurant or supply business can survive much longer.

Yes, there has been help. Chancellor Rishi Sunak stepped up with the job retention scheme, job support subsidies and Eat Out to Help Out. The Scottish Government has offered assistance such as the Covid-19 restrictions fund.

Just as this pandemic has shown the good that government can do, it has also reminded us of its tendency towards bureaucracy, arrogance and incompetence. Nicola Sturgeon has been a particular offender in this regard, demonstrating her unfamiliarity with small businesses and hospitality outlets and the complexities involved in running them. Restrictions continue to be imposed in a seemingly ad hoc manner and with scant notice, if any.

The cafe debacle is a case in point. A 16-day shutdown of licensed premises is a policy choice with far-reaching consequences and one that ought to be rolled out smoothly, not towed in behind a clown car rushing to get the First Minister in front of the nearest TV camera.

Proprietors were bewildered by ministers’ definition of a ‘cafe’ and it quickly became obvious ministers themselves didn’t have the first clue. ‘If a premises is in doubt, they should close until an environmental health officer tells them that they think they fall within the definition,’ Sturgeon abruptly told the sector, with the breezy attitude of a woman who has never had to do their job.

Hospitality venues can’t simply turn their operations around at a click of the First Minister’s fingers. Sturgeon’s aloof response to cafe owners has confirmed her position as the Marie Antoinette of Scottish politics. Let them serve cake.

There is a disconnect at work here between the First Minister’s life and that of those she rules over. Going to the cinema or for a bite to eat and then onto the pub may not be the Sturgeon-Murrells’ idea of a good time but it is how normal people spend their weekends. That has been taken away from them, again, and with it the hope that this horror of a year was getting better.

The disregard for punters is mild compared to the indifference towards hospitality and other small business. The First Minister has deployed an empathy strategy during lockdown, repeating how exacting her job is for fear of being seen as a remote imposer of rules rather than a co-victim of coronavirus.

What is absent from her repertoire of affected chuckles and practised grimaces is any understanding of how frightening these times are for the private sector.

There is a distinct lack of entrepreneur empathy, an ignorance of what is involved in running a business and a failure to appreciate how heartbreaking it is to see the effort of a lifetime torn down with a single ministerial fiat. One of the reasons for this is the distance between those who make the wealth and those who make the decisions.

The decision-makers are, generally speaking, drawn from a narrower pool of talent, most of whom attended the same universities, pursued similar careers and hold barely distinguishable views. Vanishingly few have ever run a business. Fair enough, small enterprise isn’t for everyone but that makes it all the more imperative to listen to business owners and try to understand the market in which they operate.

Lockdowns mean something entirely different to state employees than to staff and proprietors in the productive sectors of the economy. Public health officials don’t spend their days fretting about where their next shift is coming from, while government ministers are in a job that comes with its own back-up job if you get sacked.

When advisers advise and ministers impose another round of business restrictions, they tell themselves they are harming profits to help people but in truth both are harmed. Firms are not an abstract of pounds and pennies on a balance sheet; they are people, owners and workers alike, trying to get by.

We are not talking about corporate leviathans such as Google and Coca-Cola. More than 99 per cent of businesses in Scotland are small or medium- sized enterprises and they account for 55 per cent of private sector jobs. Around 1.2million livelihoods are made here. That’s food put on tables and roofs kept over heads.

That’s not counting the knock- on effects for other sectors. Last week, a taxi driver in his fifties told me from behind a wall of polyethylene about his time in the industry. He had worked hard for more than 30 years, he recounted with no little pride, so that at this point in his life he could be more selective about which shifts he worked – daytime was better and meant avoiding the sometimes rowdy Saturday night runs. Now he was back to going out every night and barely scraping £40 a day before tax or licence fees.

Whether in hospitality or entertainment or elsewhere, entrepreneurs are not demanding clarity because they are greedy or unconcerned with their workers’ safety or eager to exploit their labour. They know how close to the wall they are. They open up that same spreadsheet every night before bed and see the assets column nosediving while the bottom line for creditors stays the same. They are the ones who will have to do the laying off, not Nicola Sturgeon or Jason Leitch.

Sooner or later, we will have to move beyond the failed strategy of lockdowns, but until then some measures will be unavoidable and some industries doomed to suffer. That is why it is vital small businesses be given clear guidance and ample warning ahead of fresh restrictions.

Every family firm, built by sweat and sacrifice, is a dream factory in its own right and every shutter pulled down for good a ‘closed’ sign hung on someone’s hopes for a better life. Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t have to care about these people, but she ought at least to listen to them.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Image by Tobias Heine from Pixabay.

NHS must awaken from its Covid coma

Much of the romanticism that attaches to the NHS flows from its founding principle of providing medical services ‘free at the point of need’. In the wake of the grief and sacrifice of war, the health service represented another great coming together in a peacetime endeavour for fairness and decency. 

A less lofty but more pivotal phrase is this: ‘[A] comprehensive health service designed to secure improvement in the physical and mental health of the people of Scotland and the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness.’ These, the opening words of the NHS (Scotland) Act 1947, are not quite as stirring but they are the operative description of the health service. 

While removing the burden of insurance fees and charges was a central virtue for Minister for Health Aneurin Bevan, what set the NHS apart was its scale and comprehensiveness. It would meet all needs for all people in all times. That is why the Act made ministers responsible for ‘the effective provision of services’. 

One of the necessary fictions of the past seven months has been that of a plucky NHS plugging on in spite of everything. In the words of Health Secretary Jeane Freeman: ‘Throughout the pandemic NHS Scotland has remained open, delivering emergency services and vital care.’ We all know this is not true. Since March, the NHS has not been comprehensive. It has not been improving physical and mental health. It has not been preventing, diagnosing and treating illness to the same extent. 

A significant part of the health service was placed in a temporary coma to accommodate the response to Covid-19. While a global pandemic was always going to disrupt its operation, the degree to which basic NHS functions have been suspended is far-reaching and unprecedented. Everyone will have their own story, from personal experience or that of a friend or loved one. The cancelled surgery, the extended stay on a waiting list, the bureaucratic assault course that lies between picking up the phone and seeing a GP. 

The statistics confirm just how common these occurrences are. There were almost 16,000 fewer planned operations in July 2020 (the most recent month for which figures are available) than for the previous July. Nearly 65 per cent of patients waited longer than the six-week target for a key test result and half for longer than 13 weeks. The backlog meant 7,500 extra patients waiting for an endoscopy and 2,500 more for a radiology test than this time last year. 

The target for 95 per cent of new outpatients to be seen within 12 weeks of referral has simply ceased to exist. By the summer, those seen under this standard had plummeted 66 per cent on summer 2019. The same goes for the Treatment Time Guarantee, which says that all eligible inpatients should be seen within 12 weeks of a decision to treat. In fact, the number of patients being treated under this guarantee plunged 79 per cent on last year. 

We get daily updates on coronavirus but not on the human toll of making coronavirus our only priority. That cost includes a 64 per cent drop in referrals to IVF treatment, an 80 per cent decrease in chronic pain sufferers seen and a fall of more than half in children and young people referred to mental health services. This is no one’s idea of ‘the effective provision of services’.

Eventually, waiting times will return to normal, which, in most cases, means targets still being missed but by less. However, the anguish caused by these months of disruption cannot not be undone. When these people needed the NHS most, it closed its doors to them. 

The resumption of services is under way, albeit gradually. Breast cancer screening has restarted and there is a plan to ‘remobilise and redesign’ cancer care. Community optometrists are handling patients with long-term and sight-threatening conditions whom hospitals could not help under their emergency measures. Dentists are at last seeing people left in pain for months, though access to dental services remains a more complicated picture than high registration rates would suggest. Slowly, the NHS is being brought back round. 

That process must be accelerated, especially as we head into winter, where the double whammy of Covid-19 and flu could bring the health service grinding to a halt once again. The signs are already coming into view. An additional 800,000 people are eligible for the flu vaccine this year because of coronavirus and the rush has so far caught NHS bosses off-guard.

NHS Fife told older patients to stop calling its flu jab hotline because its eight call handlers could not deal with the 1,000 calls coming in every hour. To her credit, chairwoman Tricia Marwick apologised swiftly, admitted the health board ‘had not prepared adequately’ and drafted in more telephonists. Better than expressions of regret is proactivity to make sure these scenes are not repeated in other health boards. 

The logistics of delivering the vaccine also need to be looked at. MSPs are hearing from constituents who ought to be getting the injection but have no car to drive to the centralised locations where it is being offered. They face the choice of making multiple journeys on busy public transport or going without the jab. It is vital that these problems are remedied promptly for flu and factored into the planning for any coronavirus vaccine. 

To find its footing again, the NHS must recall the terms on which it was established. It exists to secure improvement in the physical and mental health of the people of Scotland, not some of the people of Scotland, some of the time and for some conditions but not others. Unless the health service returns expeditiously to its original purpose, the purpose which has earned it the respect and affection of generations, its fitness for the task assigned it may start to come into question. This is particularly the case for priority conditions such as cancers, heart disease and strokes, but for many other illnesses too. 

An NHS free at the point of need is only as good as its availability at the point of need. An NHS that yanks down the shutters when times get tough is one failing to live up to its founding spirit, which is a spirit of service. These are, we hope, extraordinary times and treating Covid-19 will naturally be at the forefront of what the NHS does, but it can no longer be all or most of what it does. The NHS belongs to us, not to ministers or managers, and we must insist that it reopens to us — now. 

*****

Finally someone said it. Douglas Ross’s conference speech was a long overdue rebuke to self-indulgent Tories down south, who have either stopped caring about the Union or simply lost their nerve for the struggle against separatism. 

The Scottish Conservative leader told virtual delegates that these faint-hearts were not only complacent but complicit; ‘doing the SNP’s work for them’ in his bracing words. More incendiary still was his declaration that: ‘The case for separation is now being made more effectively in London than it ever could in Edinburgh.’ 

Ross didn’t just issue his southern colleagues a wake-up call. He lamped them around the head with the alarm clock. Speeches are important but actions count more and now we must see the UK Government stepping up and defending the Union politically and legislatively. Law-breaking capers aside, the Internal Market Bill is a good start but nothing more. Douglas Ross has shown he has the right idea. The Prime Minister must show he has the right plan. 

*****

Aberdeen is marking a political milestone: the 150th anniversary of The Grill. The Union Street pub has been serving thirsty Dons since 1870 but it is also the preferred watering hole for MPs and journalists during party conferences in the Granite City. How many scoops must have begun life over a pint in this venerable establishment. May it see another 150 years.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Image by Darko Stojanovic from Pixabay.