Don't Fall For It, by Jennifer Young

By Jennifer Young

West Edinburgh is usually a pretty quiet place, not somewhere you’d expect to be hassled as you wander along the streets. So I was a little surprised to be accosted the other day by a group of smiley happy people calling themselves ‘Friends of the NHS’. Friends of the NHS? Well, aren’t we all?

Sensing like-minded folk, I stopped to chat. They wanted me to sign a petition calling on local MP, Mike Crockart (Lib Dem), to write to David Cameron asking him to protect the NHS from privatisation. And, at once, I felt my fellow-feeling disappear. Because what they were putting about, under the guise of concern, was neither more nor less than several levels of misinformation. 

Their message was that Mike Crockart and David Cameron (both Westminster MPs, but of course that wasn’t explicitly stated) are implicated in the privatisation (as far as I know, not yet proposed) of the NHS (in Scotland, again not explicitly stated but clearly implied). Here we go: the image of the big bad Westminster wolf determined to destroy all that’s good in Scotland.

Why is this so wrong? Well, the petition I declined to sign (along with anyone else, at least while I was watching) is broadly analogous to one asking you to write to my neighbour’s employer to beg her to stop him spending so much money on booze and fast cars. My neighbour earns his money and it’s his right to spend it as he wishes. I may be concerned about him and so may you, but writing to his boss isn’t the way to deal with it because although the company he works for provides him with the money, it has no control over his expenditure. 

That’s how it is with the NHS in Scotland: Scotland receives a block grant to spend as it will, within certain limits. The NHS comes under health, and health is a devolved power. This means that power to privatise the NHS, or protect it from privatisation, rests with the Scottish Government, not the one in Westminster, and that perhaps the most effective route for addressing any concerns about the issue would be to write to a representative in Holyrood.

A member of the governing party might be best, because he or she is more likely to be heard. So let’s recast the Friends’ petition. Let’s ask Colin Keir (SNP MSP for Edinburgh Western) to write to Nicola Sturgeon, asking the First Minister to protect the NHS in Scotland from privatisation. Much more effective and much more relevant; but a very different message — and certainly not the message that the nationalists want to put across. 

Admittedly, this is a slightly more subtle approach than the big lie of the latter part of the independence referendum campaign, when the nationalists claimed that the NHS was at risk from a No vote. But the message they want to get across is the same and is as untrue now as it was then: that the Scottish NHS is about to be privatised by a Westminster government. Or, in other words, that if my neighbour drinks himself to death, or the car gets repossessed, it’s his boss’s fault.

No-one denies that there are problems in the NHS, but this isn’t the place to discuss them or what the solutions may be. The issue here is where the responsibility lies for finding the solutions and putting them into practice. That responsibility lies with the Scottish Government, because health is a devolved power. (Yes, I know I’ve said it before. I’m repeating it because I have to.) 

In case anyone needs reminding, the Scottish Government is currently an SNP administration. Which means that, if the NHS in Scotland IS at risk of privatisation (note the if), then it’s the SNP who will do it. 

We should look more closely at some devolved powers. There’s a very helpful list on the Scottish Government website. Currently these comprise:

  • agriculture, forestry and fisheries
  • education and training
  • environment
  • health and social services
  • housing
  • law and order (including the licensing of air weapons)
  • local government
  • sport and the arts
  • tourism and economic development
  • many aspects of transport. 

Those are current. By 2016 a whole raft of new powers will come in under the Scotland Act of 2012 (some, such as control over drink-driving limits, are live already). The Scottish Government will then be able to control such matters as a Scottish income tax, stamp duty, land and landfill tax and other areas. And then, of course, come the new powers agreed under the Smith Commission. (Agreed and then criticised by the SNP, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I don’t know who the Friends of the NHS are: I can’t find a trace of them on the internet and I didn’t keep one of their leaflets, but I imagine they’re the kind of group who will materialise, dematerialise and rematerialise as required as part of the misinformation mission of #the45 — friends of the NHS one week, deeply concerned about Westminster’s destruction of our environment the next. 

That the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament are increasing makes everything a little confusing and even the best-informed of us don’t necessarily have all the responsibilities of the relevant parliaments at our fingertips. But the list above is the current one and it’s only going to get longer.

You may see Friends of the NHS or their like out on the streets again; I fully expect to. You might want to stop and ask them about devolved powers, or you might prefer to walk on by, shaking your head sadly and reflecting on the wisdom of the silent majority. Whatever you do, the important thing is that you remember, and remind others, where the responsibility lies for much of what’s going on in Scotland’s politics right now: with Holyrood’s SNP administration. 

The petition was a stunt. There will be others and they’re part of a plan.

Don’t fall for it.

Jennifer Young is a resident of west Edinburgh.

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