Why the English NHS bill helps the cause of Scottish independence

In truth, I’ve been wrestling with this piece for more than a week now.  Three times I’ve picked it up and put it down.  Sometimes, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees, to be able to pluck the analysis from the swirl of detail and politics.  Headspace for thinking is sometimes hard to find.

But two very important thought pieces in Scotland on Sunday today helped crystallise the nub of what I’m about to say.  Must-reading for everyone in Scottish politics, frankly:  first, Duncan Hamilton sets out how three events this week have shown how Labour’s political influence in Scotland is plummeting still and second, Kenny Farquharson details how the SNP is engaged in a cultural revolution encouraging its supporters and indeed, Scots to embrace their inner Britishness.  As an unreconstructed Nat, it makes for discomfiting if thought-provoking reading.

Both articles, to some extent, provide context for my assertion that one of the key independence battlegrounds is in England and specifically, over the NHS bill.

The most important speech in Scottish politics over the last few weeks wasn’t actually made at a party conference but by Depute First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon in a lecture at Glasgow University.  Here was a senior SNP figure beginning the process of laying out what independence is for and highlighting key differentials between “there” and “here”.  The NHS and its treatment was key, so key, in fact, that it featured in not just her address to the SNP Spring Conference a week later, but in all the major speeches of the weekend.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health asserted that independence was but a vehicle to a fairer Scotland and that the biggest threat to the welfare state – the quintessential British construct – was the current UK Government. “Independence will give Scotland the opportunity to make different decisions and to implement policies designed for its own needs in every area. In welfare as well as health, the economy as well as education. In the past the union would have been seen as not just the creator but also the guarantor of the values and vision of the post-war welfare state. Today, many see that it is the union, under the Westminster government, that poses the biggest threat to these values and that vision.”

Both she and the First Minister laid out in their Spring conference speeches quite deliberately and clearly that the little amount of independence we have currently – an interesting take on the devolution settlement which was largely ignored by the mainstream media – enables Scotland to choose a different path over the NHS.   In essence, there will be no privatisation of the NHS in Scotland under the watch of an SNP Government.

Whatever the detail of the NHS bill currently causing such storm and fury south of the border – and it is hard to keep up with the convolution of its measures amidst the spin and counter-spin – we in Scotland are looking from afar at the Conservatives doing what we always suspected them of doing – of dismantling that which we hold dear – the idea of an NHS in public hands, free at the point of need.

For sure, the Liberal Democrat membership tried to stymie their leadership’s complicity in the deal, but they failed.  Despite a refusal to back the bill at the party’s UK Spring Conference, their MPs and Lords are holding fast to their commitment (largely) to coalition government and supporting it.  Meanwhile, Labour is doing a grand job of leading the charge under Andy Burnham, whom most commentators agree is playing a blinder, but it will come to nought.  As Duncan Hamilton points out:  “politics is about power, and Labour has none”.

Especially here in Scotland, which enables the SNP to drive a further nail in Labour’s coffin. One of the other interesting themes of the First Minister’s speech in particular, was that only the SNP can protect Scotland’s interests against the worst perfidy of a Tory-led government at Westminster.  Whereas Iain Gray tried to make this concept stick during the 2011 Scottish election campaign and failed, the SNP can state it with greater authority.  Because the SNP has the power and the backing of the Scottish people to do so.

Hence, the clever tactical focus on measures like the NHS bill which point this reality up and which enable the SNP to make the positive case for independence.

Clearly Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond – and the unseen army of often brilliant party tacticians and strategists – have a nose for these things and have determined to capitalise on the coalition’s woes. The Scottish Government will wring every last drop of political advantage from the situation unfolding south of the border.

Tom Gordon at the Sunday Herald erroneously portrayed the core of the First Minister’s speech to conference as an attempt to pitch the referendum as a personality contest between himself and David Cameron.  He’s wrong:  the messaging here is much more potent and heady, more complex and far more fundamental than that.  It’s about appealing to values held dear, and nothing is held in greater esteem by Scots than the NHS.  In any poll, health is always top or nearly so;  indeed, clinging to the notion of a universal, entirely public NHS exposes Scots’ innate conservatism (as Alex Massie pointed out).

The Massie one also beat me to the observation that there is an irony inherent in the SNP – the party which wants to change the rules of the political game forever –  aiming to do so by changing not very much at all.

But the politics has a purpose.  They privatise, we protect.  They ignore, we listen.  They dismantle, we build.  If devo-whatever is Ruth Davidson’s line in the sand, then the NHS could become a symbolic no passeran, one for which the Scottish public might well take to the barricades, or at least to their ballot papers.

The SNP’s instincts on this are spot-on.  Claiming to protect the NHS with the little independence we have, and articulating the idea that real independence would deliver the health service we want;  laying claim to be the real defender of a tenet of Britishness which is safer if Scotland goes it alone;  these are the kind of arguments which will make Scots pause and think.

And persuade many to realise that a yes vote might deliver the change – no change at all, in fact – they wish.

17 thoughts on “Why the English NHS bill helps the cause of Scottish independence

  1. Pingback: The Arrogance of British Politics | Cbcburke9's Blog

  2. Maybe I am wrong about this, but it seems to me that the SNP are for protecting the bits of the post war consensus that most Scots seem to approve of. Most of us will have used the NHS at one time or another, and will be quite pleased that we were treated free at the point of delivery. Many Scots who have had the benefit of a ‘free’ university education will expect the same for their children, etc, etc.

    Smallish changes can also make an impact. I recall someone picking up their prescription from the chemists and being amazed that it was free. That is also an important message to be sending out. We can make things better, and this is how we do it.

    The strategic reason for all of this seems pretty obvious. If you want ‘no change’ to the things you like, vote for independence. It is almost a topsy turvy arguement, but it has merit if you are trying to persuade a conservative country to take the step to a yes vote. Because, to the extent that anything can be guaranteed, it is the only way to maintain the status quo relative to the things that actually matter to people rather than the constitutional stuff which is a bit of a turn off for most electors.

  3. Tom Gordon at the Sunday Herald erroneously portrayed the core of the First Minister’s speech to conference as an attempt to pitch the referendum as a personality contest between himself and David Cameron. He’s wrong

    Aye, I don’t know which speech he was watching, but that certainly wasn’t the message I was getting from Eck. I wish the media would stop trying to reduce independence to a petty battle between two politicians – it’s far too important for that.

    It’s interesting how devolution was meant as a sop to Scots to get us to shut up about home rule and to stop the rise of the SNP. Instead, it is merely highlighting how different things truly are in Scotland and England. Independence won’t change people’s lives massively, in fact many people probably won’t really notice much change at all – but that’s what we want. The NHS may not be perfect, nor our other institutions, but I think we’re broadly happy with how they are. We want our politicians to be making things better, not changing them completely. So we see what is happening across the border, and we’re glad that our NHS, schools and universities are not under the same threats. People perhaps think we can continue to protect these things under devolution, maybe with a little bit more devolution to protect other things, but they don’t seem to grasp that the cuts to public spending in these areas in England will dramatically reduce the money we have to spend in Scotland.

    In 1979 we had a chance to protect ourselves from the destructive policies that were to come in the 80s and beyond, but not enough people grasped that chance. I hope those who are a “soft no” to independence consider this before marking their cross in the referendum, because you don’t get these sort of chances every year. There is no such thing as a “no change” option in this referendum – voting “yes” will change our government but keep our way of life, whereas voting “no” will keep our government but change our way of life. The question is which change is more palatable?

    I wonder how things would be today if the 1979 referendum hadn’t been fixed and we’d had devolution throughout the 80s?

    • The iceland and Ireland canard needs to be shot down forever – Ireland still have a higher GDP per head that the UK, and Iceland’s economy is growing far faster than ours.

      Adam Price, the former Plaid Cymru MP, who is now a fulbright scholar at the kennedy school in Harvard, is researching the effect of size on the economic performance of nations, and this has allowed him to publish “The flotilla effect” which shows quite clearly and rigorously how smaller countries in Europe (pop.<10 million) have consistently performed better over the last 20 years than their larger neighbours. I recommend that anyone who has not read it, who is interested in politics and economics, to read it at the earliest opportunity.

  4. The NHS is one of those golden ‘shared values’ that unionists are so fond of citing as ‘British’ values that unite us. Yet they are showing in England that it means fark all to them. Looking after the poor and disadvantaged is another – yet they are embarked on a program, nominally aimed at people cheating the system, that will cost more than it saves unless they succeed in depriving the disadvantage of the basic means of support.

    The differential public service pay, to be announced in the budget (according to leaks) will make poor areas poorer – removing just about their last argument for retaining the union – the one about redistribution of wealth. They couldn’t do more to help the SNP if they tried! (or is that what they want?)

  5. “They privatise, we protect”.

    That would be a better slogan for the SNP than the current mince at the moment (sorry, but the PPB has really got to me!).

    Health services in Scotland are not perfect – and having spent a few days recently with a relative, I can justify that.

    However, the key difference is that the NHS in Scotland remains a public service organisation. There are targets, but not profit driven ones. Health is a nightmare of a ministerial portfolio, but Sturgeon has made progress. I’ve yet to speak to one person who thinks that the NHS in Scotland has got worse.

    So Health is most definitely a vote winner for the Referendum.

  6. This is a good article but I’m not convinced that this will be the sticking point.

    If the Torys can get there shit together and be more respectful of the Scottish Independence issue, rather than just pissing everyone off north of Stevenage, the thing that will really make the Scottish people pause for thought is the economy. The SNP talk a lot about how better off we would be money wise but honesty both sides of the issue make some very serious points – esspecially after what has happened to other small countries like Iceland and Ireland.

    I’m not a a supporter of Independence but I would like more thoughtful articles like this written about it rather that the circle jerk of how the Tory’s are out to get us, and us in Scotland spesificly they hint, that seems to go on among Independence supporters right now.

    So yeah, good article.

    • “both sides of the issue make some very serious points – esspecially after what has happened to other small countries like Iceland and Ireland.”

      Two countries. What about what has happened to Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Luxembourg, and the rest? Not to mention what has happened to most of the big countries that aren’t called Germany. Besides, Iceland is generally accepted to have pretty much recovered from the financial crisis, and come out the other side an even better country than it was before. Can the same be said about the giants of Europe? Italy are in trouble, Spain’s unemployment is through the roof, and the UK probably has the biggest debt in Europe.

      Here’s an interesting couple of facts for you to mull over Natalie. Unemployment in Iceland today stands at 6.6%, and has been on a constant downward trend since about March 2011. Unemployment in the UK today is 8.4% and has been rising constantly since about February 2011. More to the point, despite their much-heralded problems, Iceland’s unemployment rate has remained consistently below the UK’s since the financial crisis began (and far, far lower before). Of course, you won’t read about this in the papers or hear it on the BBC, because it simply wouldn’t do to let people know that other countries have recovered far quicker than us, never mind highlighting the fact that countries such as the Netherlands, Austria and Finland never even got into any trouble in the first place.

      Anyone can pick a few small countries to prove a point. Have a look here – I’ve gone to Google Public Data and chosen four big countries (UK, Italy, France and Spain) and four small ones (Austria, Luxembourg, Iceland and Norway) to show that big countries seem to have disastrous unemployment rates, while small countries are doing brilliantly. It’s not the full picture obviously, but no less so than when people pick out Ireland as proof that all small countries have been crippled by the financial crisis.

  7. I would have to agree with Indy. It is simple change for the sake of it, the totally believe in market forces while most people here are fearful of it. The market has no conscience or morals and unregulated can do terrible things. Massie also betrays another conservative trait I abhor – a lack of compassion: He’s not against a safety net as such but isn’t awful that so many people use it. Yes people will take advantage of it, that’s Human nature – but this bait and switch tactic the Tories use were they focus on the few who do take advantage to attack the majority who don’t take advantage and really need that assistance, makes me very angry. It is one of the reasons I could never vote Tory. The other is their small government mantra – people who want to be in power so they can enact policies that divest them of responsibility while in office are simply not to be trusted.

  8. Pingback: Why the English NHS bill helps the cause of Scottish independence | Scottish Independence Referendum | Scoop.it

  9. “The Cabinet Secretary for Health asserted that independence was but a vehicle to a fairer Scotland and that the biggest threat to the welfare state – the quintessential British construct – was the current UK Government.”

    Note that Nicola Sturgeon did not focus exclusively on the “current UK Government”, referring instead to “Westminster government”. By which we may assume her to have meant UK governments of any hue. This is a crucial point and, as is acknowledged, the issue of the NHS illustrates why.

    The hard truth is that the union can’t be fixed. It can’t be fixed because Westminster can’t be fixed. And Westminster can’t be fixed because there simply is not the political will or public pressure for meaningful reform in England. People in Scotland must abandon any notion that it might be possible to have the kind of government they want, in the kind of country they hope for, founded on the principles they aspire to, whilst Scotland remains part of the union. It simply cannot be.

    The political, economic and societal imperatives which drive the current UK government’s assault on the fundamentals of the NHS in England will impose themselves on whatever party holds power at Westminster. The kind of ideological commitment which might serve as a counter to these imperatives no longer exists in those of the “old parties” formerly thought of as being progressive. If the New Labour project signalled anything at all it was that expediency had finally and completely supplanted principle in that part of the Labour movement which lays claim to political power.

    We cannot realistically hope that any Westminster government will to any extent and in any respect serve and reflect the interests and aspirations of the people of Scotland. We dare not trust that it might.

  10. I think the thing with Alex Massie et al is that they are pro-change for the sake of it – messing about wth the NHS, vouchers for schools, all that sort of thing. In my view the vast majority of Scottish people do not want that, That is seen as a kind of conservatism with a small c, an unwillingness to embrace market reforms and all that malarkey. Maybe it is conservatism with a small c but it’s absolutely fundamental in my view.

    The most important manifesto ever published was Labour’s 1945 manifesto which set out the principles which underly the NHS and the welfare state and indeed comprehensive free education although that came later, Any party which moves away from those principles will lose support in Scotland because voters across the board – Labour, SNP, nationalist, unionist, Green, Lib Dem even Tories – believe very strongly in those principles.

    It’s not like a passing whim that we can move on from if something more “modern” comes onto the horizon, nor is it an unwillingness to embrace change in principle. It’s something that is very basic and fundamental almost like the way that the Americans or the French regard their constitution. Call it social democracy or the common weal or whatever else. People fundamentally believe that we have a responsibilty to each other and, as a society, a responsibility to provide help for those who need it knowing that help will be provided to us when we need it.

    I personally do not believe that most English people feel that much differently, something has just gone horribly wrong with the political system down south, putting power into the hands of a cabal of millionnaires who have very little understanding of the way normal people live and what normal people want. I remain hopeful that the English will find a way to save their NHS but I totally agree just the threat of what the Tories are doing is an extremely powerful argument for independence.

    • Interesting that you are critical of change – claiming with some justification (but only some) that some folk want change for the sake of it – then cite the single biggest overhaul of social policy which created huge upheaval and change.

      I spend my days up and close and personal with how large tracts of the public sector in Scotland treat the most vulnerable in our society. It ain’t pretty. I don’t advocate change for its own sake but change because what we have is broken, costs a fortune and doesn’t work. Nor is it fit for the future demands of it. Which is why John Swinney in particular gets the need for reform.

      And it’s also why folk in the SNP – or so I thought – want the biggest change of all. To do things differently or better. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate and admire the tactics of the current position but I don’t agree that the way to save and protect the NHS in Scotland is to preserve it as is. Wouldn’t have the privateers anywhere near it, would be absolutely public sector but would be very different in my world.

      • Maybe I didn’t say it clearly enough – most people, including myself, are against changing the basis on which the NHS is founded and the basis of the welfare state and the basis of comprehensive and free access to education.

        Of course the way services are delivered can change anc should change. Society has changed vastly since 1945 after all but it’s the principles that I believe people hold dear. It’s about government being there to serve the interests of the many, not the few. That’s why ideas like school vouchers just don’t get anywhere. All our children should be able to go to a good school and achieve their potential – not just exceptional children. What’s the good of making sure the “top” 20 per cent get a brilliant education if it means the other 80 per cent get a bog standard one and are just regarded as worker drones supposing they are lucky enough to get a job in the first place. It’s that elitist kind of thinkingdisguised as “choice” that most people reject and rightly so.

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