NHS Scotland: Always independent, now at the TTIPing Point of Privatisation

On 16th August, 700 Co. Durham mothers, healthcare workers and trade unionists set off from the banks of the Tyne in a 300 mile walk reprising the 1936 Jarrow protest march at mass unemployment, in order to reach Westminster on 6th September for Prime Minister’s questions. They are doing so to protest and fight against the privatisation and dismantling of the NHS by the coalition government, and to support the continuation of a universal public health service.

So what has this to do with the Scottish independence Referendum? Possibly everything, in the positioning for the last battlefields as we enter the closing weeks of the campaigns. Scotland may, somewhat bizarrely, have the reputation as the sick man of Europe – but it was not always so. Research has previously demonstrated the link between the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s deindustrialisation in the west of Scotland and higher death rates, but Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer for the last 8 years, Sir Harry Burns, went further in December 2012: “In the 1970s and 1980s those jobs disappeared and the men who worked those shipyards were never re-employed. Shipyards, steel works, heavy industry in west central Scotland disappeared and was never replaced the way it was in the north of England … with car factories and so on. A void appeared in men’s lives and the void was filled with drink, drugs and fighting.”

We can measure this relative disparity in terms of Life Expectancy (LE) and Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE), both of which are consistently and significantly worse in Scotland than the rest of the UK (Scottish men and women live 2-2.5 years less than their English counterparts) and indeed than many other EU countries. Although LE has increased across Europe since 1998, the improvement has been significantly less in Scotland (4% for men and 2.5% for women), causing it to drop down the rankings of other European countries. For the most deprived 20% in Scotland, male LE/HLE is 70/50, with female LE/HLE 70.5/52.5.

So it seems that Scotland right now has some greater needs of its health service as part of the ongoing consequences of previous Westminster administrations. Sir Harry Burns warned that health inequalities are the biggest issue facing Scotland, because they “are really a manifestation of social inequality. Social complexity, social disintegration drives things like criminality, it drives things like poor educational attainment, it drives a whole range of things that we would want to see different in Scotland.” Before he left to become Professor of Global Public Health at Strathclyde University earlier this year, Harry noted that a ‘Yes’ vote could see significant health improvements, as health prospects for people improve greatly when they have more control over their lives – but he also warned against the dangers of a ‘No’ vote, with the impact from the ongoing privatisation of the NHS (England) directly pressurising the NHS (Scotland).

So, in what actual ways is the NHS really at risk in Scotland, given that it has always been independent, and is governed by Holyrood? Others have forcefully drawn attention to David Cameron’s use of a personal family tragedy to portray himself as the defender of the NHS – although it did not seem so cynical at the time, in the wake of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, he seems to have been far from sincere. The passing in Westminster in 2012 of the Health and Social Care Act had two principal effects, the first being (in under 2 pages) the removal of the Secretary of State for Health’s duty to secure and provide health care for all. The other 455 pages prepared the way for healthcare provision to move from a state/publicly-funded, publicly-provided service offering universal access to healthcare on the basis of need and not the ability to pay, to an economic activity, shifting towards US-style profit-prioritised health provision, thus ending the state monopoly by introducing the private market. The private market, of course, means cherry-picking the most lucrative services, with no strategy or planning across the sector for complete coverage, and that some sectors of society will not receive treatment as they will not have medical insurance (eg. the homeless, some of the elderly), and this is why politicians needed to absolve themselves of their duty of care to the population as a whole in those first pages. This process also – perhaps surprisingly – is likely to mean a drop in efficiency through privatisation (administration costing only 6% under the NHS, as opposed to 30-40% in the US). [If you are interested, I would commend you to the video of Professor Allyson Pollock(Professor of Public Health Research and Policy at Queen Mary University of London)’s Tedx talk on privatisation of the NHS – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cz5dl9fhj7o#t=55 ]

The NHS is not about providing care for ‘some’, it is free for all at point of need – that is what underlies the entire principle of it. Sustaining a small part of this idea, nested within a US model of private healthcare (the politicians who introduced it being driven and sponsored by the same companies that thrive in those markets in the US) does not constitute defending the NHS, as we might have understood Cameron’s intention to be. Andy Burnham is an odd voice to be warning of this, as someone who (under the last Labour government) initiated privatization when in post as Health Secretary. Now he criticises – not privatisation itself – but the ‘speed’ of that privatisation. One might cynically suggest that his is less of a Damascine Road conversion, than an opportunity to posture as an opponent in opposition, in the hope of appearing to be a defender (perhaps, again, like Cameron), and win political support for his party going into next year’s general election.

Why is all this relevant to the Referendum on Scottish independence? Well, there are three main reasons:
1) Now as shadow health secretary in opposition, Andy Burnham has recently been arguing for a pan-UK combined health policy and approach – presumably also threatening NHS (Scotland)’s independent status since its inception in 1948. So, in such a scenario, what is happening in England would become our own direct health service future. (It is perhaps – as a sidebar here – worth noting that although there is not a united NHS, it is a tribute to the cooperation and reciprocity between the different sections that they work so seamlessly as to make it difficult for us to notice that they are not a single unit. This is also true of NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), which deals with vital organ transplant services – these fully independent units have a number of reciprocal arrangements between the health services, as well as with other countries, which they stated in March 2014 will be unaffected in the event of independence, as these cross-border healthcare arrangements are expected to continue.)

2) Although NHS (Scotland) is a discrete unit, its funding is tied to the funding of NHS (England), such that the continuing outsourcing and privatisation within NHS (England) directly reduces the funding Scotland receives for its NHS. In 2013, contracts to private firms from NHS (England) was in excess of £10 billion. These – effectively – cuts to the public funding of the NHS (England), through the introduction of private ‘strings-attached’ finance have direct financial consequences to the block grant for the Scottish Government through use of the Barnett Formula, which redistributes a portion (around 70%) of taxes from Scotland back to Holyrood as part of the Scottish block grant, a calculation that is based on per head expenditure in England. (Admittedly, the likelihood of the Barnett Formula continuing to survive during the next Westminster parliament is fairly unlikely, and the consequent reductions in finance for Scotland are estimated at somewhere around £4.5-6.5 billion…so there could be even worse news for NHS (Scotland) with the demise of Barnett after a ‘No’ vote anyway.) Even although the money is not ringfenced for health service spending within the block grant, any reduction in the block grant signifies more pressure on the remaining areas to sustain service levels, health included. So there will inevitably be budget problems for Scotland’s NHS while dependency on Barnett funding continues (and these are likely to be cripplingly greater in the likely event of Barnett being dismantled during the next Westminster parliament).

3) The third reason is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) treaty between the EU and the US, that opens state services to competition from US multinationals. This competition can only occur where privatisation of a given service already exists within a state – which means that for now it can occur south of the border in the health service, but not north of the border. However, there are implications for Scotland if it (through voting ‘No’) declares itself to be a mere territory of the greater UK, as it could be viewed as therefore only a part of a partially privatized whole and thus legitimately open to competition. (Again, if Andy Burnham’s pan-UK health service came to pass, it would be left even more clearly vulnerable to this form of privatizing assault, with no possible defense in declaring itself to be a discrete state unit with an ongoing state monopoly of health provision.)

In contrast, it is planned that the Scottish Constitution will have protection for the NHS enshrined within it.  Alex Salmond: “With independence we have the golden opportunity to enshrine Bevan’s founding principles for our National Health Service in the written constitution for Scotland – publicly-owned, clinically-driven, and freely-delivered equally for all – a guarantee that not only will the NHS be kept in public hands, but that the services that are free to access today will be free to access in the future. Constitutional protection for the NHS is our promise to generations yet to come that in the Scotland we seek no one will be denied medical aid because of lack of means. The NHS is the at the heart of our nation, and I want it to be at the heart of our constitution.” Such an idea would not be unique: 9% of the countries in the UN have constitutional protection for free healthcare, 38% guarantee the right to medical care services, and 14% guarantee ‘public health’.

It is for these reasons that there is strong support for a ‘Yes’ vote in NHS (Scotland): as the breast cancer surgeon Dr. Philippa Whitford notes (and Andy Burnham has echoed), the NHS will not exist in England in 5 years time. And, because of the links described above, in the event of a ‘No’ vote, NHS (Scotland) will not last much longer than that.

 

“In five years England will not have an NHS as you understand it, and if we vote No, in ten years neither will we.” (Dr. Philippa Whitford)

The Revolution will NOT be Televised: How BBC Scotland became McFox News

One of my favourite sessions in the Edinburgh Fringe’s ‘All Back to Bowie’s’ thread, was the one concerning the media in Scotland. Iain McWhirter and Peter Arnott with a representative from National Collective, and a provocation by former BBC Scotland and Good Morning Scotland anchorman Derek Bateman, all of whom rejected the idea of overt bias by the BBC, but bemoaned the top-down London-dominated mindset in BBC Scotland, and the way that the BBC received its agenda directly from the (again, London-dominated) press, especially at a time when 25% of its journalists (mainly from News and Current Affairs) had been axed from BBC Scotland over the preceding two years, contributing to a “cultural helplessness in our media”. Derek is a staunch defender of the BBC from accusations of ‘bias’, although he does blast its Head of News for not realising the political landscape had moved in both 2007 and 2011. So, at the same time as a majority of us had decided that we trusted Holyrood more than Westminster, BBC Scotland was still trying to decide whether it was “Strathclyde Region renewed, or a Mini-Me Westminster” (as Bateman put it),  regarding Holyrood as Billy Connolly’s ‘wee pretendy parliament’ – and thus already moving away from its audience.

I myself came to my slightly more cynical position a while back: it was probably around two years ago that I made the contentious comparison of the BBC in Scotland with Fox News.  I had just seen BBC Scotland’s determined presentation of the local council results, and noted the stark focus of the BBC in treating the Glasgow Council results as exceptions to their otherwise standard rule of assessing a gain in comparison to the previous council election.  This was in striking contrast to the coverage of the other channels. Glasgow, as you may recall, had a series of individuals that defected from Labour after being in post for some years, nearly wresting control away from the council’s Labour group.  The BBC decided that these positions were ‘Labour wins’ – despite the fact that Labour had those positions in the previous council, thus making them ‘Labour Holds’, as opposed to ‘wins’ from independents (with a small ‘i’).  The variance of this assessment was something that I found quite shocking, as it was not being extended to other council posts that had had by-elections – and had the effect of reducing the SNP’s tally of gains relative to Labour, on a night when the SNP won the popular vote in the council elections for the first time ever.

After such an inauspicious beginning, I started to look more critically at the BBC’s coverage, and started to see more and more similarities with a certain US TV station.  You see, for some time, I had followed the FaceBook page ‘We Survived Bush, You’ll Survive Obama’, and had picked up on a lot of techniques used to try and discredit an administration not favoured by a particular broadcaster.  You know the sort of thing – not just failing to report ‘good news’ stories, but also reporting everything in a negative context. So Obama drinking a Pepsi becomes an attack on Coca Cola, Obama getting caught in the rain becomes a squandering of water during a drought…that kind of thing.  I was surprised how easy it became to spot similar stories on BBC Scotland – even down to new figures showing that the jobless figures were dropping faster than the rest of the UK, when the story became uniquely not about that, but about zero hours contracts (as though they only happened in Scotland) instead.

So, yes – I confess that, around this time, I started to refer to BBC Scotland news as McFox News, similarly dedicated to traducing the government of the day, regardless of the news. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Freedom of Information requests to NHS Boards in Scotland had increased by almost 700% from Labour’s last year in power at Holyrood to the SNP taking power there in 2007. BBC Scotland’s Eleanor Bradford has been conspicuous in the reporting of stories attacking the NHS in Scotland, and the FoI requests increase would seem to suggest that the broadcaster was fishing for ‘bad news’ stories in an attempt to undermine confidence in both the Scottish Government run by an SNP administration and the Scottish health service.

I would have to admit that I have a little bit of experience in this realm, as I do a lot of work in China, a country where the control of broadcasting is so effective that for most citizens the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 never actually happened. Of course, it is hard to make an argument comparing the Chinese state broadcaster (called – without a trace of irony – ‘CCTV’) to the BBC – but I confess that my illusions about good old ‘Auntie Beeb’ (as I was raised to understand it to be), started to fall away a couple of years ago. In this context, little things such as online comments being closed down on BBC Scotland political and economics stories on its website, yet being completely open on the BBC websites for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, started to take on a different complexion.

At this time, it became hard not to consider the accusation that far from being the arbiter of peace, harmony and democracy, the BBC was actually acting very much as a state broadcaster under much more obviously repressive regimes.  In this context, the explosion of television programmes with ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ in the title since the SNP majority government was elected in 2011, is quite startling. This list represents (not exhaustive – at the end of this piece) only those shown in the first months of 2014 – and it is interesting to reflect how many such programmes existed before 2011 – can you remember any of these being broadcast before then?

Of course it could be ENTIRELY coincidental, but the fact that most of them are subsequent (rather than in the run-up to) the London 2012 Olympics is perhaps revealing: one could, perhaps cynically, review them as a policy by the BBC designed to submerge Scottish (and other) identities within an aggressively-promoted ‘Brand Britain’. I did see one commentator opine that perhaps in the past the BBC had had a policy to avoid this sort of thing, in order not to push Scots and others into feeling alienated, and was now heavily overcompensating for this in a ‘mass rebranding’ exercise, as the BBC had realised that this strategy had not worked?

All of these are (comparatively) subtle ways of subliminally attempting to alter people’s identity perception – and would certainly tie in with more overt acts to suppress the Scottish identity in other aspects, e.g. Red Arrows at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony being blocked from flying blue and white (as they have done before at Scottish events), the decision to host Armed Forces Day on the same weekend and in the same town as the 700th Bannockburn anniversary (unusual, as noted elsewhere, given that Armed Forces Day was last held in Scotland a mere 4 years ago). These are all trappings of the Age of Empire, which have been ramped up in the run-up to the Referendum, and some of which were evident during the Commonwealth Games (as I have noted elsewhere).

In this context, it is of little surprise that alternative podcasts such as Referendum TV (anchored by McWhirter and Riddoch, amongst others), Bateman Broadcasting (by Derek) or even DateLine Scotland have sprung up, to fill the empty niche of referendum-related broadcasting, and compensate for the dearth of programming from BBC Scotland at this critical time. So, yes – all of the above is why I was one of ‘those people’ demonstrating outside the BBC at Pacific Quay during the Commonwealth Games, and singing along to the wonderful Queen parody ‘BBC Blah Blah’ (check out ‘Yew Choob’ on YouTube).  At just over 1,200 people (we each had to take a unique number, in order to counter the BBC’s previous underreporting of our numbers), we were not a huge contingent – but we at least matched the numbers that turned up that same weekend to the free Armed Forces Day event in Stirling.

I would close with a line akin to ‘BBC Scotland ignores this trend at its peril’, but by this stage, I think that BBC Scotland frankly understands too little to care – as it perhaps always has, ever since devolution.

 

 “Don’t bemoan the media. Be the media.” (Jello Biafra)

List of BBC TV programmes in the first half of 2014 with either the words ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ in the title:

The Great British Year

Britain’s Empty Homes

The Great British Bake-Off

Harrow: A Very British School (Sky 1)
Martin Clunes: Islands of Britain
Full Throttle: The Glory Days of British Motorbikes
Great British Railway Journeys
Up All Night: Britain on Call
Britain’s Funniest Comedy Characters
Fool Britannia
Britain’s Secret Treasures
Britain and the Sea
Fake Britain
Britain’s Secret Terror Force: A Panorama Special
A History of Britain in Numbers
A Great British Christmas with Sarah Beeney (CH4)
Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History (
BBC4)
Young, British and Broke: The Truth about Payday Loans
Keeping Britain Safe 24/7
Reel History of Britain
Nigel Slater’s Great British Biscuit
Great British Garden Revival
Heston’s Great British Food (CH4)
Great British Sewing Bee Christmas Special (
BBC2)
Britain’s Killer Storms (CH4)
Britain’s Favourite Xmas Songs (CH5)
Pothole Britain – Drivers Beware! (CH5)
Battlefield Britain (
BBC4)
UK’s Best Body (The Active Channel, Sky 281)
The Year Britain Froze (More4)
The Year Britain Flooded (More4)
Sex, Lies, and a Very British Scapegoat (ITV)
Brit Cops: War on Crime
Brit Cops: Law & Disorder
Brit Cops: Rapid Response
Brit Cops: Frontline Crime
Boozed Up Brits Abroad (Sky Living)
Great British Ghosts (Drama)
The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug (
BBC4)
Legends: Roy Orbison – The ‘Big O’ in Britain (
BBC4)
Britain’s Hardest (Challenge)
JFK: The Final Visit to Britain (
BBC2)
Britain’s Favourite Christmas Songs (CH5 )
Britain’s Craziest Xmas Lights (CH5)
The British Invasion: Herman’s Hermits (Sky Arts 1)
Sacred Wonders of Britain (
BBC2)
Britain’s Got Talent (ITV)
A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley (
BBC4)
The Hidden World of Britain’s Immigrants (
BBC2)
Battered Britain: Storms, Tides and Floods
Fred Dibnah’s Made in Britain
Ade in Britain (STV)
Britain’s Great War (
BBC1)
Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun (CH5)
ACI: Britain’s Worst Crash (National Geographic)
Hidden Histories: Britain’s Oldest Family Businesses
Britain’s Best Bakery (STV)
Benefits Britain: The Bedroom Tax (CH4)
The Boats That Built Britain (
BBC4)
Kidnapped; Betrayed by Britain? – Panorama (
BBC1)
Britain’s Bronze Age Mummies: A Time Team Special (CH4)
Hungry Britain – Panorama (
BBC1)
I Never Knew That About Britain (STV)
Permission Impossible: Britain’s Planners (
BBC2)
Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top 10 (
BBC4)
Britain on Film (
BBC4)
The Nature of Britain (
BBC2)
The British (Sky Atlantic)
A Very British Renaissance (
BBC2)
Border Country: The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland (
BBC2)
Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century (
BBC4)
British Touring Car Championship Live (
BBC4)
Jet! When
Britain Ruled the Skies (BBC4)
Great British Menu (
BBC2)
The Battle for
Britain’s Breakfast (BBC2)

My Family and Other (Political) Animals

So it is said that in such political struggles, even when there are violent political wrongs that should make it clear where oppression comes from, that families will be divided. My family is no exception, and I thought it might be worth sketching that out a little, as some families seek to never raise the question at all. I’ll start with one family member who, although probably the most passionate supporter of independence, will definitely not be voting in September.

I remember the last time that my father spoke to me about independence for Scotland. He was someone who had been taken in by the personal assurance of the former prime minister Lord Alec Douglas Home that if the Labour devolution package contained in the Scotland act 2012 was rejected, the Conservatives would bring forward a better version when they gained office. My father worked in financial services, for the Scottish Widows Fund, so was naturally ‘right’ leaning – but of course, when Margaret Thatcher took power, devolved government for Scotland singularly did not happen (although one can argue that she did much to pave the way not just for devolution, but even the rise in support for the independence opportunity that we have today). My father felt cheated and lied to by a party that he had trusted, and he never really forgave them for it. So when we spoke on the matter that last time, he said that although he would not see it, he was confident that independence for Scotland would happen in my lifetime. He died in 2005, two short of the SNP’s first Holyrood win, still angry at what he felt was a profound betrayal by the party that he had trusted in 1979.

My mother is a little different – although also ‘somewhat’ to the right, she, unlike my father, voted against joining the European community. This made her a bit of a special case, when it came time to try to fulfil Margo MacDonald’s challenge (delivered at the first September independence rally at Princes Street Gardens in 2012) for each of us to convert one other person to Yes. Margo’s rationale was simple – if all of us current supporters converted just one other person each to Yes, then we would win the Referndum at a canter. (Frankie Boyle’s counter-suggestion was that we each convert 10,000 people…) So my mother seemed the best target to go for. First of all, I got her involved in the Scottish Government’s online consultation exercise, and obtained a copy of the White Paper for her (she is 86, and neither a silver surfer nor Kindle-adept). What I have found interesting, is her instinctive rejection of Better Together representatives as untrustworthy, regardless of how much their position should intuitively fit with her beliefs. In the process, I have seen her drift away from ‘No’ – and Alistair Darling’s performance in the first debate was particularly effective in this regard. (‘They said he was Chancellor, but I don’t remember him – was he really?’ ‘Yes, Mum. He was the one in post when the banks went under.’)

In opposition to my mother’s drift to ‘Yes’ sits my sister, with weekly telephone calls to try and turn that tide backwards. A former (successful and long-serving) LibDem Councillor in Fife, she was shamefully stabbed in the back by a clique in her party during a deselection exercise, and was removed from the seat that she had held for years. She then went to work for a local LibDem MSP – just before the party’s near-total 2011 wipeout at Holyrood. She campaigns for a ‘No’ – and, in part, I feel that her campaigning is almost one last attempt to try to prove her loyalty to her party, so that they will take her back – but that may be unfair. In terms of reasons beyond that, she spoke to me once of a friend she had from Bosnia, who said that ‘there were no good nationalisms’. As much as I understand where her friend was coming from, my sister knew that I had done a fair bit of research on that part of the world and its history (ancient and modern), and it did not alter my perspective at all on the Referendum in Scotland. Ten years older than myself, I’m fairly sure that she understands that there is a distinctive Scottish political identity – she once joked with me that the reason that ‘the English’ tried to demean Scotland was because we had had an Enlightenment, and they had not. It’s certainly an interesting perspective…but as someone with political awareness I completely respect her opinion, even if I think it is misguided. She once told me she similarly respected Lesley Riddoch – so I (perhaps mischievously) got her ‘Blossom’ as a present for last Xmas.

Then there is my brother. He followed my father’s wartime footsteps by joining the RAF after qualifying as a chemical engineer, and has competed at sporting events under both GB and Scotland. But, realistically, a lot of people are subjected to the ‘British mindset’ in the armed forces, in a way that few are in the civilian sector, so seems less likely to be persuaded to ‘Yes’. (We’ll leave to one side the letter sent to all civil servants last week urging them that they had a responsibility to vote ‘No’.) Its true that he sometimes ‘Likes’ some of my more pro-independence posts on FaceBook, but that may just be the humour that appeals to him, so I’m not reading anything into it. We’ll see – I’m not going to raise it with him, and he is pretty unlikely of raising it with me, regardless of his personal decision. Fair enough.

So that’s us – 1 definite Yes, 1 definite No…and I’d flatter myself that I can manage to get that to 2-2. A family divided? Well – probably no more than many, and I doubt that it will have much impact on us long-term. I mean, at least one of us is going to be saying ‘I told you so’, regardless of the result.

And that person, I’m sad to say, is probably going to be me…

 

“Trust yourselves – we can and DO make good decisions.” (Kate Higgins, Women for Independence)

Weaker Together: The Legacy of the Second Debate

By many accounts, there were two showstopping moments during the second debate at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum last night – both coming from the audience. The first was ‘the wee wumman’ who called out Alistair Darling for his expensive after-dinner speeches for private health companies, hoping that he felt Aneurin Bevan on his shoulder. The second was the quietly-put question: ‘If we are better together – why aren’t we better together now?’

Watching that line was like watching a bomb go off, and the effect on the audience was similar. The gentleman had a point – and he knew it was a powerful one, from his quiet smile. Let us put to one side the internal decline that we have witnessed, with 820,000 officially classified as living in poverty in Scotland last year, an increase of 110,000 on the previous year. Even in comparison with other countries in Europe on many basic financial metrics, the UK does not even compare well. The UK’s state pension (maximum £5881.20) is the lowest in Europe, with Germany disbursing the equivalent of £26,366 and Ireland (so often derided financially by UK government ‘experts’) £10,415. The UK’s interest rate on its borrowing is increasing at a time when the interest rate in every other country in the EU is decreasing, with Ireland far financially stronger. This is all down to financial mismanagement and incompetence: the Conservative Party, for so long the party with the reputation of fiscal prudency, has been demonstrated as financially inept (for all that it ‘talks a good fight’) by its handling of the economy during this financial crisis by making a priority of pursuing ideological rather than economic goals. As with the Labour Party, it also shares the failure of four decades of Westminster administrations in neglecting to set up an oil fund for when the North Sea resources run out, making the UK the only country other than Iraq to have failed to do this in the world. Instead, it has squandered the money – initially on Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist experiment (coincidentally once again an ideological priority, as with today’s financial management policies), paying for all the people that she made unemployed through deindustrialization, in a policy aimed at establishing financial services as the priority for the country’s economy. And that ‘eggs-in-one-basket’ strategy didn’t exactly turn out so well.

Labour of course hardly come up smelling of their trademark roses, especially with Gordon Brown’s pension grab and gold sell-off. Ironically, although Labour may have been demonised throughout the last decades of the twentieth century as ideologically-driven spenders who would wreck the economy, it seems that the Conservatives are the party that can more easily be accused of having actually done that.

So what, actually, is ‘better together’ about the UK? Where is this world-beating strength, except casually squandered, deindustrialising to invest in a financial services-based City that fails, sustaining nuclear weapons that cripple the larger defense budget thus sending soldiers into illegal wars for the US without adequate equipment… Suddenly, the oft-cited ‘punching above our weight’ seems more like a psychological pathology, instead of some pooled strength – an inability to get past the Age of Empire.

 

“There is no future in England’s dreaming.” (John Lydon)

Sillars, Synergy and the Perfect Storm: Devolution as a Road to Independence?

I remember hearing Jim Sillars speak in the late eighties about independence, and how dead set he was against any path that went via devolution as an interim stage towards a fully independent Scotland. Jim was very clear about it – no country had ever become independent after having a devolved status. In a way, it was the same contention that George Robertson was embracing, when he bragged some ten years later that devolution would kill independence ‘stone dead’.

Jim’s contention slightly confused me, because my (admittedly slightly sketchy) knowledge of the Habsburg Empire seemed to me to indicate otherwise – so I went to my friend, the Scottish historian Owen Dudley Edwards, and asked his opinion. He agreed with me that Hungary was a noteable exception to Jim’s argument, and cited a couple of other examples.

Fast forward almost thirty years, and it seems that we might (at least) be on the verge of creating another exception.

But clearly, one could see why such an argument could be made, that devolved government would forestall such independent political objectives: in an environment with little overt deprivation or discrimination, devolution should really be enough to satisfy most senses of political disempowerment. So what has – potentially – rendered things different for Scotland?

I would argue that there has almost been a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances – a convergence of Opportunity, Timing and Chance – which have created a highly unusual sociopolitical environment within the UK to galvanise such feelings. The most predictable part of this ‘recipe’ would be a Conservative-led government at Westminster. What would be less easy to anticipate would be the parallel discrediting of the LibDems (who had built up such a respectable powerbase over decades in Scotland) through their coalition in that same government (in a political system designed to favour majority government), following so swiftly after a Labour government so right wing that it was enthusiastically participating in illegal wars. This politically- fated convergence continues with a majority SNP government at Holyrood (in a political system designed to favour coalition government), a Westminster government pursuing a ruthless ideological agenda, cutting welfare back so harshly that hundreds of thousands are pushed into poverty, foodbank usage rocketing as the working poor balloon in numbers, the NHS is under threat through creeping privatization south of the border, and the leadership of Westminster is so out of touch and tactless or weak that they fail to realize how they are losing the PR war with the people in the process.

So we have a Westminster government, uncaring about any distinct Scottish political identity that argues for social justice, and a Holyrood government fighting tooth and nail to prove that there is another way, in the face of a sea of cuts being sent out across the country from London. In a sense, this is almost the most perfect imaginable set of circumstances for a population to be shocked out of their political apathy into opting for massive political change, just for even an outside chance of something better. It is almost like Fate is saying to the SNP ‘Go on, I’ve given you the best chance that you are ever going to get to persuade the people in Scotland of the case for independence, so go for it’. In that sense, maybe Alex Salmond is right when he says that this referendum will ‘settle’ the question for a generation, as it is hard to imagine such a synergy of circumstance recurring again in the near future, to make such a compelling and urgent argument for an exit.

Unless, of course, in the wake of a ‘No’ vote, Westminster flagrantly discards any lip service so far paid to extended devolution…and the people don’t accept that.

 

“[Devolution is] a motorway to Independence with no U-turns and no exits” (Tam Dalyell)

David Cameron: ‘Excused’ debating.

Well, of course, one should never take social media terribly seriously, but I just read something on FaceBook that enraged me.

I know, it’s the day of the second (and likely to be the last) Referendum debate, and I should be focusing on slightly higher things – but it was – loosely – related. You see, there was some coverage of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon doing the ‘ice bucket challenge’ for charity over the weekend, and (as with anything referring to Alex) there was a raft of comments…including one in particular. You see, you are apparently supposed to ‘nominate’ three individuals to carry your challenge forward, so after declaring that he was fund-raising for motor neurone disease, Alex had understandably (and predictably) put David Cameron’s name forward. Someone had commented on the amount of stick that Cameron was receiving for not participating, saying that he was quite right not to, and people wanting to criticise him “should perhaps remember his son Ivan”.

Ivan Cameron died at the age of 6, having been born with cerebral palsy and an extreme form of epilepsy known as Ohtahara Syndrome – famously on the occasion of his son’s death, David Cameron thanked everyone in the health service who had helped, and that he would cut the deficit and not the health service. It seems to have been a human moment that won him a lot of compassion and support, a moment where in tragedy he stated his commitment to protect the most sacred part of British society.

Except, of course, things haven’t really turned out that way, have they? With the increasing cuts and privatisation of the NHS (England and Wales) which have a direct knock-on effect to the budget of the Scottish Government’s block grant (and hence to the standards of provision in NHS Scotland), that promise of protection is starting to look hollow. And with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal between the European Union and the US leaving state services wide open to competition from US based multinationals, it begins to look like a shockingly cynical, and tasteless exercise. As Derek Bateman has noted, David Cameron made the decision to being his son into the political arena once dead, then linked him directly to the future of the NHS. This inevitably meant that if Cameron failed to stand by his pledge to protect the health service, then this would be viewed as something of a rather opportunistic stunt.

Perhaps – unlikely though it seems – Cameron genuinely believes that in some curious way he IS ‘protecting’ the NHS. But I find it rather hard to empathise with the FaceBook poster, who sought to protect David Cameron using the name of his dead son in much the same way that Cameron used his dead son to say that he would protect the health service. The story of David Cameron’s son is of course a tragedy – but Cameron is the one that now looks to have been trying to make political capital out of it. As such, people cannot use his son as a shield to protect his father from ever being criticised for not facing up to his responsibilities, and the fact that someone would use Cameron’s tragedy in such a way did, I confess, make me rather angry.

Unfortunately, this also makes me reflect rather negatively on David Cameron’s absence with regard to the debate tonight. His protectors have sought to argue that it is ‘not his place’ to be involved in the Referendum debate. Which would be fair enough – except that by arranging regular visits from Conservative Cabinet Ministers to argue against independence, directing the Westminister civil service to pour its resources (though refusing to divulge how much they have actually spent) into producing reports arguing against independence, using the Foreign Office to lobby internationally against Scottish independence and request external interventions form the external community, as well as utilising the London political press officers to do so, the Prime Minister and his government are hardly ‘leaving it to the Scots’. Of course, as David Cameron realises, Westminister’s policies are the absolute heart of why independence is an issue today, and therefore it is most appropriate for the current leader there to defend the record of that system. And that is why Cameron will not debate with the First Minister, because he does not want this to be Westminster’s record of governance being put on public trial – especially if this starts to show others in the UK that the independence debate is not about ‘anti-Englishness’ at all, but about a problem of government that many of them will all too readily recognise.

Contrary to what he has publicly stated, David Cameron is very obviously very directly involved in the Referendum debate. What he doesn’t want, is to be accountable for that involvement.

 

“When a political system has alienated you and the people around you so thoroughly and for so long, wanting to rip it up and start again is a perfectly reasonable response.” (Kieran Hurley, Playwright)

2014: The Festival of the Referendum

And so another Edinburgh Festival finishes, leaving town with its Fringe. Last year, the outgoing Festival director announced that no work relating to the Referendum would be commissioned for this year’s event, prompting outrage. I have seen Elaine C. Smith (in an interview on the refreshing Referendum TV that has been running online throughout the festival) state that she feels that the director did that quite deliberately, knowing that it would provoke a response, and I have to accept that she knows better than I on this. Certainly, the Edinburgh Festival’s programme for this year seems to provide some evidence for that interpretation, and this has been noted: from Jenny Hjul’s somewhat irritated column in the Telegraph to Steven McElroy’s review in the New York Times that observed that the Referendum had dominated the event.

Certainly I found it exciting to be at the Festival in a way that I do not recall – the stimuli of the political shows, and that sense of the times in which we live. From Alan Bissett’s play (now booked in to the Tron for the night before the Referendum) to David Hayman’s one man show, and the cultural showcases on National Collective Presents as well as the panel debates of All Back to Bowie’s, it has been absolutely fascinating. David Greig in particular is to be commended (with all the rest of his partners in crime) for putting the Bowie show together, ranging across twenty discrete topics relating to the Referendum: Wales, Ireland, England, Britain, Tory Scotland, post-yes negotiations, media, sports, women, foreign policy…all these and many more were covered.

Hjul may espouse the view that the shows are only talking to an already-committed ‘Yes’ audience and not changing anyone’s minds, but I would not be so certain of that, were I her – certainly, all of the shows that I attended had a (albeit small) No presence in the audience. I admit it – I did see my second-ever vote No badge-wearer (why do they always – even on TV – look so unhappy and/or angry?) outside the Bowie’s yurt. As the owner of the Vote No car sticker (the one with the ’Scotland For Marriage’ car sticker, remember?) in my neighbourhood has now transformed their upstairs window into a small altar with flags, this is probably the sign of a predictable late-emerging visible ‘No’ profile in these last weeks between the Fringe and the vote itself. (And of course, for reasons that I have explored elsewhere, it is perfectly understandable why ‘No’ voters would not feel the same need to identify themselves that ‘Yes’ voters would.)

But in terms of the Festival, it has been an enriching opportunity, giving an access to discussion and debate that has been sadly lacking from the airwaves (or even the press, to a large extent), and the Referendum debate will be a sadder and smaller affair without the added dimension and depth that the Festival has provided throughout August.

 

“I tell you what – have you heard them? Talkin’ about independence? Tweetin’ it into existence – bein’ the TV programme.” (Catrin Daffyd, poet)