Donald John Trump has never shown the slightest real interest in his Hebridean connections and, to the great credit of the island from which his mother was an economic migrant, it has reciprocated by paying the least possible attention to him.
It would have been different if she had come from Ireland. By now there would be a Trump Trail, lots of tourist tat and perhaps a moving statue. But Lewis has done its best to ignore its most famous son while he, patently, has assimilated absolutely nothing from its history or values.
Occasionally, that seems like a pity. An example was last Sunday when Trump crowed via Twitter: “Thousands of people are marching in the UK because their universal system (of health care) is going broke and not working”. With his unerring ability to get the wrong end of every stick, Trump appeared to believe that people were demonstrating against the NHS and its “universalism” rather than in defence of that principle.
If only, at some point in his life, he had done a little listening and learning in the croft house kitchens of Lewis, how different things might have been. Possessed with even the scantest knowledge of his own people’s history and the society his mother was born into, it would surely be impossible to vent such ignorant hostility towards the concept of “socialised medicine”.
For there was no corner of the United Kingdom which benefited more from the NHS’s creation. Indeed, his mother’s native island and the poverty which it endured were at the roots of the first great experiment in universal health provision, free, or almost free, at the point of use – the Highlands and Islands Medical Service.
In the early part of the last century, the system which Trump upholds prevailed in the Highlands and Islands as elsewhere. If someone needed a doctor, they paid. Most people could not afford it (like the 28 million in the United States who have no health insurance today) so they postponed a visit to the last possible moment, when often it was too late. There was a recent story about a New York man who won a million dollars in a lottery. Only then could he afford to visit a doctor who promptly diagnosed advanced cancer. He died a few weeks later.
That pretty much sums up the case against Trump’s preferred system, just as countless similar experiences in the last century made the case for change in all civilised countries – and in the Highlands and Islands, possibly before anywhere else. Conditions were so dire that in 1911, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Lord Pentland, asked Sir John Dewar, the whisky baron, to lead a Committee of Inquiry into provision for medical care in the Highlands and Islands. The Dewar Report was devastating and, of all the evidence which the committee heard, the most harrowing was in Lewis.
The Dewar Report did not mince its words: “That such a condition of affairs as we found in Lewis should exist within twenty-four hours of Westminster is scarcely credible. Nor is it creditable from a national standpoint.” As a direct result of the Dewar Report, an embryonic scheme of universal health care was created, built on affordable access to doctors and a network of newly trained nurses.
It was a great social reform which – alongside improved sanitation and housing - slowly transformed conditions throughout the Highlands and Islands, most markedly in the Western Isles. It was not until the NHS came along in 1948 that the final attack on diseases associated with poverty – TB and polio among them – prevailed. If only Donald John Trump could comprehend and apply a little of that history.
Recalling the Highlands and Islands Medical Service points to another truth worth reinforcing before political mythology carries all before it. There is a long and honourable history, decades before Holyrood was conceived of, where Scotland did things differently from the rest of the UK and led the way in enlightened reforms which others then followed.
The treatment of young offenders and the right to education of children with special needs are two noble examples that spring to mind and there were many more, delivered through Scottish legislation at Westminster. Indeed, the ongoing challenge for the Scottish Parliament is to deliver as much progressive social reform as was achieved without the benefit of its deliberations in the preceding post-war decades. It’s that kind of history which makes many Scots feel a strong distaste when everything that has gone before is dismissed in order to give succor to a new political orthodoxy. Take for example a tweet of Trumpian stupidity this week from Dr Philippa Whitford MP, who felt called upon to advise the nation: “The choice is simple. Independence or subservience. Eventually Scots will have to choose.”
Personally, I have never felt remotely subservient and have no intention of doing so under prescription from Dr Whitford. She has previous form when it comes to dramatic statements. During the 2014 referendum campaign (when she was obliged to apologise to fellow NHS professionals in England for gross misrepresentation), Dr Whitford presented us with an ultimatum: “In five years, England will not have an NHS and, in ten years, if we vote No, neither will we.”
Like Trump, she fell victim to her own hyperbole. Pretending that the NHS is on the verge of collapse is as disrespectful as American hostility to universal provision is irrational. The NHS is far stronger than the rhetoric which surrounds it and the vast majority of people who experience it are grateful and satisfied, rather than intent on predicting its doom. And, of course, we are fully entitled to do things differently in Scotland if we want to.
Pressure for a better NHS should never stop because there will always be new needs and demands. It should be recognised that it is not all about money. But pretending, from any quarter, that the system is on the verge of breakdown in order to make a political point scarcely does justice to the importance of the institution or faces up to the genuine challenges which any government will have to cope with.