Brian Monteith: Time Salmond wised up to what’s wanted

Alex Salmond: Time to wise up to what's wanted? Picture: PA
Alex Salmond: Time to wise up to what's wanted? Picture: PA
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A CANCER drugs fund in Scotland has the backing of cancer charities, so why is Alex Salmond against it, asks Brian Monteith

WHEN Alex Salmond won his outright majority in the Scottish Parliament he was both magnanimous and careful enough to show some humility by emphasising in one of his many victory speeches that the SNP “did not have a monopoly on wisdom”. How long ago that moment of gracious charity now seems.

I was moved to recall that fleeting period of democratic decorum when watching First Minister’s Questions last week as the Conservative leader Ruth Davidson pressed Salmond on why he would not countenance the introduction of a Cancer Drugs Fund in Scotland – just like the one that was established by the coalition government in England last year. The First Minister resisted the young lady’s call by insisting that the cancer charities did not support it, so why should he?

Now the First Minister has had a little difficulty of late with the issue of trust and I rather wondered if this was yet another example of him being caught off-guard and resorting to bluffing his way out of an embarrassing position. After all, he has said that the SNP does not have a monopoly on wisdom so what could he have against a policy that might be good for Scotland?

Low and behold, after very little digging I found that Macmillan Cancer Support has actually thanked publicly those who campaigned for the said fund, saying: “We couldn’t have done it without you.” That sounds like a ringing endorsement to me.

Macmillan went further, saying: “We are delighted that the Cancer Drugs Fund has already helped over 7,000 patients get hold of drugs their doctors have recommended for them. Macmillan is also pleased that people with rarer cancers have been benefitting from the Fund.” No doubt Macmillan is especially pleased that the number of people that have received help has reached 23,000 since October 2010.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign, said in support of the Coalition’s initiative: “It’s clear that this fund is benefitting many women with breast cancer, with a substantial number of applications made to access drugs that would otherwise have been unavailable.” That seems pretty unequivocal to me. Two-nil to Ruth Davidson.

Macmillan and Breast Cancer Campaign are not alone. Cancer Research UK called the help given to cancer patients “to access drugs they may not have otherwise have had” through the fund “good news”. Now I don’t know which charities Alex Salmond was thinking of when he claimed they were against the idea of a special fund, but Cancer Research UK just happens to be the world’s largest independent cancer charity, so you might expect that he would give its opinion some weight.

Indeed, when I looked into it, the main concern the charities seemed to have was not that the fund was a bad idea but that the finance is only available until 2014 and they want to know that it, or something like it, will continue after then. A hat-trick then, for Davidson. Only last week cancer specialists warned Holyrood’s health committee that money is being diverted to other priorities, while cancer centres struggle to recruit the best staff because they are unable to offer training with the most up-to-date drugs. So why is Alex Salmond being so stubborn? What could make him be so against an idea that surely would be in the interest of those in Scotland that suffer from cancer? Surely it is in Scotland’s interests to have such a fund too?

As Reform Scotland has pointed out, the evidence shows that NHS cancer clear-up rates here, compared to England’s NHS, remain persistently poorer. One international study put female cancer clear-up rates at the lowest in Europe out of 22 countries studied. The idea that, under the SNP, NHS Scotland is holding to older, better standards is just risible. Like any institution, our NHS needs continual reform and evolution to improve – or it will regress. Lessons can be learnt from around the UK, so why not a Cancer Drugs Fund?

The Scottish Conservatives have been advocating the idea for a long time, indeed the party went into the Holyrood elections committed to the idea. If you speak to deputy leader Jackson Carlaw he speaks of little else, so encouraged is he of its merits. Salmond’s refusal to take up the proposal has caused the Tories to speculate that he just doesn’t want to give them any political credit. While understandable, I think this is rather uncharitable of them. After all, Salmond has already said the SNP has no monopoly on wisdom.

Past evidence shows that the SNP will adopt Scottish Conservative ideas and even claim them as their own. When in May 2007 the SNP became the largest party at Holyrood the SNP wanted to have 500 more policemen in Scotland – but the Scottish Conservatives wanted 1,000 more police and held out for this number as part of the unwritten agreement that saw the Tories back the SNP minority government. Soon the SNP was crowing from the rooftops about how it had put a thousand extra police on Scotland’s streets and in the media’s rush to report the news the role of the Tories was pretty much ignored. The same happened with a reduction in business rates for small businesses that was, without the same fanfare, funded by putting the rates of bigger businesses up.

So there we have it, the SNP does not have a monopoly on wisdom, it will adopt ideas that other parties have. Why then not establish a Cancer Drugs Fund in Scotland? I have my own theory, and it all comes down to the SNP’s approach to the referendum. What really is the point of having independence if Scotland just ends up being like the rest of the UK? Already Salmond has conceded that Scotland will use the Pound, keep the Queen, join Nato and we’ll even still feel British.

Salmond needs to find some differences, to make the rupture seem worthwhile. Making the NHS in Scotland different is one such way and spending taxpayers’ money on providing free prescriptions instead of a Cancer Drugs Fund like the one in England helps achieve this.

The SNP may have no monopoly on wisdom, but neither does it have exclusive ownership of what’s in the best interests of Scotland or its people.