ON A purely technical level there is nothing remarkable about Jim Murphy’s pledge to pay for 1,000 Scottish nurses using the “Barnett consequentials” of extra spending earmarked for the NHS in England.
This is a routine arrangement that has underpinned the financing of Scottish ministerial spending for decades.
It is a simple process: when new money is committed to a frontline public service in England, an equivalent proportion of that money – determined by the Barnett formula – is promised to Scotland. The Scottish Government can then use this money however it wishes.
What is different about Mr Murphy’s promise is the provocative way he has chosen to draw attention to how that extra English spending will be paid for.
In Labour’s manifesto for the general election, extra NHS spending in England will be partly paid for by a “mansion tax” on England’s most expensive and luxurious homes.
Mr Murphy has highlighted this fact, saying that Holyrood on its own “couldn’t afford” this extra spending on nurses, but that it was possible because of money “raised outside of Scotland” from wealthy homeowners in the south-east of England.
It has often been the case that English public spending has been drawn disproportionately from the tax take of the most prosperous people in England. But it has seldom been in anyone’s political interest to draw attention to this.
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Scottish Nationalists have been reluctant to highlight the fact that extra cash for Scottish frontline services was being made possible by the Treasury picking the pockets of rich English folk. And unionist politicians have been reluctant to risk antagonising people south of the Border by giving the erroneous impression that generous Scottish spending on the NHS is paid for by the English.
And yet this is precisely what Mr Murphy has now done.
The response from England has been immediate and predictably angry. London mayor Boris Johnson said Mr Murphy was trying to “mug London”, and London Labour MP Diane Abbott accused him of being “unscrupulous”.
These politicians are sophisticated enough to know this is how Barnett has always worked. But they also politically savvy enough to appreciate how valuable the impression of “spongeing Jocks” could be to English nationalists such as Ukip.
Mr Murphy’s intention in all this seems clear – his declared aim is to secure the support of traditional Labour voters, many of them in the traditional heartland of Glasgow, who turned their back on the party and voted Yes in the referendum. He desperately wants to bring these people back into the party fold so they will not be tempted to vote SNP this year or next.
He appears to think that the idea of financing the Scottish NHS by fleecing rich English folk will appeal to this group.
He may well be right. But at what price?
Medics must respect others’ opinion
MEDICAL professionals command an enormous degree of respect, and quite right too. When our loved ones are ill we rely on the skill and dedication of NHS staff to bring them back to full health. Who, without their specialist knowledge, would challenge their judgment?
And yet the NHS does not exist in a vacuum. Our health service is paid for by the public and governed on their behalf by elected politicians operating in a democracy.
And medical professionals are as subject to ministerial direction as anyone else in the public sector.
So when a health minister says in the strongest possible terms that a specific way the NHS is operating is unacceptable, that message should not be ignored.
That, however, is what seems to have been the response to comments made by Alex Neil when he was Scotland’s health minister, months before he was reshuffled late last year.
Mr Neil told MSPs last June he was “deeply troubled” by the use of a vaginal implant known as a “mesh” as a treatment for a range of conditions. Many patients complain of harrowing side- effects of this procedure, including chronic pain.
And yet half of Scotland’s health boards are continuing to use this technique, to the anger and frustration of campaigners and opposition MSPs at Holyrood.
Some clinicians clearly believe this procedure is justified. But there is surely a way for political direction to be respected, while retaining the clinical flexibility to make exceptions as and when necessary. To ignore that political direction and carry on regardless is, however, unacceptable.
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