Student Politics And The Microcosm: The true story of Pontius Pilate and Professor Malcolm Macleod (Neurology)

The launch today of the 5 day pilot of ‘The National’ newspaper supporting independence, in the midst of the Scottish labour leadership contest, made me reflect on former encounters in the student realm with both aspiring journalists and Labour careerists.  In this regard, I do sometimes wonder if I have just been extremely unfortunate in the Scottish Labour individuals that I came across on a personal, working basis within student politics – Jim Murphy, Malcolm Macleod, Dougie Alexander… While Alexander seemed quite the non-entity when I worked alongside him compared with his public profile today, he served as Rector’s Assessor to the today more generally-anonymous Macleod. I knew Macleod much better, first meeting him at medical school: although he seemed to specialise mostly in offending his classmates, and apparently having a big hand-up in his career from his mother (although nepotism is perhaps not so unusual in the medical profession – as with others), he was otherwise not exceptional.

I can remember the first time that Macleod’s political venom first became evident to me. I had completed a summer working for a life assurance company, and was commenting on how poor the security was, in terms of how easy it would be to send penalty payments through to people on their policies. “I wouldn’t hesitate if I saw Malcolm Rifkind’s name” he said, in a flash. For myself, I had only been casually joking in more modest, parochial terms – perhaps an unpopular and sectarian anatomy lecturer, for example – but Malcolm’s instincts were swift, to the point and extremely serious.

When I came back to university a couple of years later, things had changed – he was standing for student president on a Labour Club ticket – the standard way for political hacks to start out when they wanted a career in the Labour Party. What struck me was that a number of our friends, who were Labour Club members, were avowedly declaring that they would not support him under any circumstance. I was a little surprised by their vehemence – which seemed to indicate a mistrust not of his abilities but his motivation, and what he would actually do in post – but I helped in his election campaign anyway. Could he have changed that much as an individual, to become so mistrusted by friends (some of them, admittedly, now somewhat distanced from him)? Macleod won, and took office – however, soon afterwards, a number of those who had campaigned for him were starting to wonder if they should have expended quite so much effort in doing so. His abrasive style did not go down well, and his year troughed particularly when he was exposed as having an affair with the editor of the Student newspaper, at the expense of his long-term partner. I think that, for me, this defined a fundamental mistrust in that type of infidelity in a politician – frankly, if that is how they behave with someone who trusts them implicitly, then how can they be trusted to do anything for the electorate, beyond taking whatever they can for themselves? But there was something slightly bizarre about this revelation – the way in which sleeping with a newspaper editor mirrored ‘grown-up’ politics and advancement. Did Malcolm not realise that this was kiddies politics? Was he perhaps not taking it a bit too seriously?

I wondered if he would continue his Labour career trajectory, and it was with little surprise that I read of his failed attempt to get selected for the Ochil seat: I would be unsurprised if in particular it was his abrasive personality that led to his 5th place on a regional list. But I only read of this retrospectively in August 23rd’s The Herald, where he was touted as the leader of something called ‘Medics for No’ (me neither) in their head-to-head section against Philippa Whitford speaking for NHS for Yes. Within that piece, Macleod’s familiarly offensive nature rose to the fore again – I could practically hear his grunting laugh with amusement at his own comments, just as he used to – referring to Yes supporters as ‘delusional’, ‘juvenile’ and ‘immature’. He still patronises well, after all these years: ‘There’s a lovely, attractive optimism in the Scottish psyche. It’s given us the confidence to travel to the furthest corners of the world’ – actually Malcolm, that’s a little bit more to do with having no choice but to leave, due to clearances and land ownership, not some twee ‘och theres gie few like us, eh?’ attitude. Check out the ‘The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil’ to fill in those convenient gaps in your education.

In classic deflective style, he then accused his opponents of telling lies (although the idea that he can accuse anyone of that, given his time as student president, is frankly risible), but deliberately used the term ‘porkies’: always talk down to your audience as though they are children, use that vocabulary to remind them that they know nothing and should listen to whatever you tell them. This, of course, was a set-up for his own great lie: he defended the fact that the cuts in health service spending in England would be communicated via the Barnett Formula to Scotland as not impacting on the NHS in Scotland, because ‘you can always raise more taxes if you need them’.

This uncomfortably reminded me of my own time working for the Students’ Representative Council at the University of Edinburgh, again involving the Student newspaper (although perhaps not in quite the same marriage of convenience that Macleod would have opted for) – and, in that sense, this post serves as much as an apology for that, as for aiding the beginnings of Malcolm’s political career. A cut in funding was implemented by the University on the funding that it was supposed to disburse to us, in spite of the fact that we had run our finances competently for very many years (they had woken up with an unexpected £5.98 million deficit, as one or two financial overseers mysteriously left the organisation one lunchtime), and while we campaigned against this, a large number of our internal budgets had to be cut.

One of them was the budget that the Student newspaper was funded from. The Student newspaper was founded in 1887 by Robert Louis Stevenson, making it the UK’s oldest student newspaper, but the paper was running at a hugely disproportionate loss as part of the Students’ Association’s publications board, compared to (for example) student societies, and the question was asked as to whether we as a student body could afford to keep subsidising it on this basis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Student newspaper responded by calling in some favours from its generations of media graduates, and the local press corps (e.g. the Scotsman newspaper) got involved, asking the question ‘Why are you trying to close down the Student newspaper?’ From the political perspective, I knew exactly how to answer that: ‘The only people who can close the Student newspaper are the students who run it’. Ring any bells? David Cameron came out with exactly the same phrase with regard to NHS Scotland (and Macleod is clearly a kindred spirit) – and from personal experience I recognised it for the empty statement that it was: you can say you are not deciding to privatise NHS Scotland, but through the mechanism of the ‘death of a thousand cuts’ to the overall budget, you are still deciding that that will be the result. Your hand does not need to be the one that signs the piece of paper, you can pretend it is the decision of the one who has to choose between destinations for diminishing resources – it wasn’t me, guv – and that they were the one to have been the one to make that outcome inevitable. The fact that Pilate outsources the decision of who to pardon, does not detract from the fact that he had already decided that people are going to die.

Tom Gordon’s piece remarked, without a trace of irony, that in Macleod, politics’ loss might well have been medicine’s gain. I am less convinced of the latter interpretation – and I am similarly unconvinced by Macelod’s guarantees of the safety of funding for the NHS in Scotland, in the wake of reduced NHS expenditure in England. Yes, you can choose to support other NHS Scotland funding from your budget, regardless of what happens to the NHS south of the border – but that means making a priority of it at the expense of other areas that are already funded, and it is utterly disingenuous to fail to recognise that in the same breath as you state that its funding can only be threatened by the Scottish Government, as though NHS funding was magically protected – something that I was guilty of all those years ago, when referring to the Student Newspaper’s continuing existence. And sure, you can increase taxes – but that is further stretching an already overburdened people, and unfairly driving them towards a neoliberal agenda that they did not in any way vote for.

Of course, the way to progress is to break the linkage between the Treasury in London and the taxes raised in Scotland, so that the money is spent there on the priorities decided by the people that live there, without having an increasing chunk of it reserved for London usage. In this regard, there might be an unlikely source for optimism to be taken from Ruth Davidson’s recent observation that full transfer of raising all income tax to Scotland was a minimum requirement in more devolution – even a “red line issue” (ignoring her previous ‘line in the sand’ statement as regards the idea of more powers for the Scottish Government). This means that the Barnett Formula is history…but that only works if the responsibility for spending it also is devolved – not just a portion, the rest being sent in tithe to the Treasury, but all of it. As much as such a step would no doubt be presented as ‘full control’ and ‘full responsibility’, full responsibility to collect without the power to spend it fully is meaningless, and simply translates into a devolving of the costs of tax collectors…to be yet another additional element that has to be funded by Scottish taxpayers. Just as the shortfall in Barnett resulting from the enhanced privatisation of the NHS in England would also be. Scotland already pays more than its fair share to subsidise the ongoing union – and will be asked to pay yet more (we are already slated to pay £12 billion towards National Infrastructure Plan projects – although only one of those billions will be spent in Scotland, and it is somewhat challenging to see how transport or sewer infrastructure projects in London will directly beneift the scottish subsidisers of those particular projects). Being asked to pay to collect taxes without freedom to allocate the spend of all taxes is not ‘more powers’, but ‘more liabilities’ and ‘fewer services’. Not such an attractive offer.

In the week that the Smith Commission has to deliver its report, that is worth bearing in mind.

“Reading ‘Scotland’s Future’, I couldn’t at first account for a faint twinge of melancholy, a recognition. Then it dawned on me. The Scotland being here described – or proposed – was the Britain so passionately hoped for by the millions who voted for Tony Blair, back in 1997.” (Neal Ascherson, 29th November 2013)

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