Will Alex Neil go down in history as the man who cost the SNP a yes vote?
This might come as a surprise to some, but the job of newspapers is to make news which people want to read and buy. So, when the Health Secretary for England, Jeremy Hunt gave his personal view in an interview on Friday that the time limit for terminations should be reduced radically from the current 24 weeks to 12, political antennae in Scotland should have been twitching.
Just as the journalistic ones at Scotland on Sunday clearly were. What, they decided to ask, was the Scottish health secretary’s view? A pertinent question, even without the added spice of the constitutional debate which might ultimately result in Scotland being in charge of the power and indeed, duty to determine such sensitive issues for itself.
I’m sure the paper thought that if it was really lucky, it might just get something worth printing; I doubt, though, that it expected to have a gold-plated splash fall into its lap. Forget the provocative headline: that’s a side issue to the substance of the matter. Which is that the Scottish health secretary, Alex Neil, took it upon himself to declare his personal view that the time limit on termination would be something he would approve of being reviewed and indeed, cut in an independent Scotland.
His response begets several questions of its own, primary among them being, what on earth Alex Neil thought he was doing replying personally to such a contentious issue without routing the request through Scottish Government channels for a spokesperson to give a more anodyne reply.
It has been clear for some months now that the SNP led government has become politically risk averse, taking great care to avoid controversy in the day job and working out behind the scenes, which potentially contentious issues need to be smoothed away in time for the referendum in 2014. Royalty, currency and now NATO have all been subjected to a kind of pre-buttal policy treatment, whereby the party strategists have identified issues which if allowed to linger on in their current party policy garb would come to dominate the debate. The decision appears to have been taken early doors to remove such obstacles, and clear the decks for the policy debates it does want the Scottish people to engage in as we approach 2014.
Abortion and other contentious “morality” issues, like genetics and embryology, must feature somewhere on this internal list. Control over policy in these areas would, of course, become Scotland’s if/when we become an independent country. Mistakenly, I had presumed that there was a party line on such matters – position statements, as they are known in the trade – for all Ministers and spokespeople to have to hand when the media come calling. Perhaps Alex Neil, the newly ensconced Health Secretary, has lost his or has not yet been furnished with the one on health matters, or maybe the dog ate it.
Because far though I might be from the SNP power base these days, even I can surmise as to what “the line” on abortion might be. “Issues to do with women’s reproductive rights would, of course, pass to Scotland to determine on independence. Given that there is near unanimity among medical experts on the safe and appropriate time limit for termination being 24 weeks, we see no immediate need to change policy on this matter, though if new medical evidence came to light, we might want to review the policy at some point in the future. The premise of any such review would be to ensure that women in Scotland enjoy the same health rights as their counterparts elsewhere on these islands and indeed, elsewhere in the Western world. We would not want to do anything which disadvantages women in Scotland.“
Perhaps I am crediting the SNP with too much nous. Even though I caw from the sidelines and lob occasional sceptical blogposts their way, most days I feel secure in the knowledge that the party has a plan, a ginormous gant chart with every input, output, objective and timing plotted for the next two years. Which most importantly of all, has identified which of the 30% or so of don’t knows are indeed persuadable and which has prioritised them in order of persuadable-ness. I would have thought that women and in particular, young women of child-bearing age and above average education and earnings, would be one of those priority groups. After all, it took the nascent Women for Independence movement all of half an hour to identify these women as being potentially pivotal to the outcome of the vote.
Which brings me back to my question: when the party is at pains to strain the tent fabric at every opportunity, to keep all potential yes voters on side, what on earth possessed the Health Secretary to risk jettisoning one such group? Alex Neil is a canny and astute politician and I cannot believe that he did not weigh up the options at his disposal, which were to ignore Scotland on Sunday’s enquiry, to pass it on to a nameless official to deal with, to proffer a safe response or to go for the nuclear option of positing the prospect of reducing the time limit on termination in an independent Scotland. And given he opted for the latter course, the question remains: why?
Not for the first time do I draw attention to the bloc of white, middle-aged, middle class and socially conservative men sitting in the SNP parliamentary group these days. Was Alex Neil playing to a gallery, currying favour with a potentially useful group of influencers should the occasion ever arise for a tilt at a leadership position? Some might scoff, but few of the SNP’s ranks have harboured such ambitions and for so long, nor been so successful at maintaining an inexplicably large internal supporter base on the left of the party. Even though Mr Neil dispatched his left-leaning credentials a long while ago.
Should we take his comments at face value, as evidence of a misguided attempt to kickstart a debate on an important area of post-independence policy? If so, why did he think the appropriate place to make his move was from the front page of one of Scotland’s Sunday newspapers, beneath a screaming headline and enabling a leader column which tries its best not to gloat at having managed to flush out yet another fault-line in the SNP’s platform for a yes vote. Especially when conference convenes later this month, with, as far as I am aware, only one “excellent debate” scheduled on the agenda.
Perhaps Mr Neil is acting as the outrider, prepared to not only think but also say the unthinkable, allowing a topical resolution to come to the rescue of women’s reproductive rights in independent Scotland. Sorry, but not even I can get my head around that one. In any event, such posturing would be unbecoming of a man paid a handsome six figure salary to command a multi-billion pound part of the public sector.
But then, bad as these possible rationale are, they are infinitely preferable to a third possibility which is that Alex Neil was playing to another gallery entirely. An external, socially conservative one which enjoys an unhelpful and undeserved position of influence on social policy matters in Scotland. Might the Health Secretary’s remarks have been a misguided and ill-judged attempt to bring the bishops back on board after a fretful summer of froideur twixt government and church over equal marriage?
If so, I hope the Bishops’ Conference can deliver a shed load of votes more than their ten own. Because I fear, whatever the reasons behind it, Alex Neil’s intervention on this matter might well have done for the referendum. Looking back at recent elections, we can all identify a moment at which a campaign was lost: Iain Gray’s Subway fiasco; Gordon Brown’s bigoted woman jibe; Jack McConnell being chewed up and spat out by Bernard Ponsonby over Labour’s council tax policy.
Often such moments are trivial – trailing the possibility of much reduced reproductive rights for women in independent Scotland is clearly not. But I fear its effect might be the same, with thousands of women all over Scotland already setting their previously-unmade minds up to vote no in 2014. In a few short ill-judged remarks, Alex Neil might well be the man who has scuppered the persuadable-ness of a key voter group, in a moment of madness of Romney-esque proportions.
And should this come to pass, then like Tam’s Kate, this one will be nursing her wrath to keep it warm for a very long time to come.