Euan McColm: SNP losing their grip on ‘safe hands’ reputation

The SNP won’t be able to deflect voters’ attention from the health service crisis with a fantasy referendum for much longer, writes Euan McColm
Jeane Freeman is now fighting the grave problems in the NHS that have been allowed to develop since Nicola Sturgeon was health secretary. Picture Michael GillenJeane Freeman is now fighting the grave problems in the NHS that have been allowed to develop since Nicola Sturgeon was health secretary. Picture Michael Gillen
Jeane Freeman is now fighting the grave problems in the NHS that have been allowed to develop since Nicola Sturgeon was health secretary. Picture Michael Gillen

Whataboutery is all the rage these days. All the political parties are at it.

Confronted with evidence of his party’s failings, the modern politician will immediately demand to know why the media isn’t expending the same amount of energy exposing the appalling behaviour of his opponents.

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As case after case of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party emerged, elected members and campaigners demanded to know why we weren’t hearing about Islamophobia in the Conservative ranks.

Why bother defending yourself when it’s so much easier to point at the other guy and insist: “He’s just as bad.”

In politics, whataboutery is fuelled by the willingness of supporters to believe that dark forces – the mainstream media, the “establishment” – are lined up against their party. Any criticism, for example, of the SNP’s record is to be treated as a diversion from the real story, which is the records of other parties.

Even when the nationalists’ opponents make the news for unfortunate reasons, the committed SNP supporter will, across social media, demand that we imagine how much more damning the report would have been had it involved their party.

The Scottish NHS is now in what we should consider a crisis. Two thirds of health boards have been placed in special measures over fears about patient care. There are serious and legitimate concerns about the state of Glasgow’s newest facility, the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, after patient deaths were linked to the water supply. And a staffing crisis is placing intolerable pressure on doctors and nurses who are simply incapable of delivering on the waiting time promises made by the Scottish Government.

“But what about the NHS in England?” demands the loyal SNP foot-solider.

This particular line of whataboutery has, I think, now run its course.

Almost 13 years after taking power at Holyrood, the SNP can no longer place the blame for problems within the NHS at the feet of any other party. This one is on the SNP and the SNP alone.

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On Friday, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman escalated special measures to their highest level across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. At least, say Freeman’s supporters, she’s taking action. At least she’s doing something about the problem.

Would they be so generous if Scottish Labour or the Tories were currently in charge of the Scottish NHS? No, of course they wouldn’t. If any other party was currently mismanaging the health service as the SNP is then nationalists would be performatively livid.

In advance of the 2007 Holyrood election, the SNP spent a great deal of time working on the case that only it could be depended upon to keep the NHS safe and supported. Labour might have established the health service but if you wanted to ensure its survival then you had to put the SNP in charge.

As health secretary during the early years of SNP government, Nicola Sturgeon introduced with considerable fanfare, flagship policies such as the abolition of prescription charges and the introduction of free parking at hospitals.

There were certainly attention-grabbing policies but there is a difference between good policy and easy policy. These handouts fall squarely into the latter category.

If there is any evidence that the NHS now offers an improved quality of service since it started giving free prescriptions to wealthy middle-class Scots, I’ve yet to see it.

During the 2014 referendum campaign – and during subsequent elections – the SNP has positioned itself as the protector of the NHS against the misery of privatisation. In 2014, Scots were told by Sturgeon and her fellow nationalist, Patrick Harvie of the Greens, that only a Yes vote could save the health service.

This was hooey. Running the NHS is a responsibility fully devolved to Holyrood. When, after the referendum was over, there was a major deal involving the private sector and the NHS, it was the SNP contracting out the storage of private medical records.

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There is a very good reason that the SNP put such effort into styling itself the party of the NHS: the health service matters to voters. December’s general election might have been seen by many as the Brexit election but polling found that the NHS was a more important issue to the electorate than the UK’s departure from the EU.

The SNP, for all its talk of radical agendas, has been remarkably cautious in power. Ministers, focused on the constitutional question, have shied away from implementing reforms – which can be a risky game – in case plans backfire and the independence case suffers collateral damage.

This might have been sustainable for a short period, but almost 13 years after it came to power, the SNP needs to start making some potentially messy decisions about the health service.

When the SNP persuaded a significant number of Scottish voters that Labour could no longer be trusted to look after the NHS, the political game changed. Had voters not believed that the nationalists could be trusted to look after the health service, they would not have put them in power.

The same complacency that let Labour take victory in Scotland for granted is now alive in the SNP. And the NHS is just one area where we see the nationalists fail to engage. A similar lack of leadership on education means standards in literacy and numeracy among Scottish children are desperately poor.

Sturgeon appears to be incapable of discussing anything but a second independence referendum these days, despite having no power to call such a vote – and despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s insistence that he will not allow one to proceed .

Perhaps that’s not so very surprising. After all, when it comes to the domestic policy agenda, the SNP has nothing to crow about. It’s far easier to talk up a fantasy referendum than it is to take on complex policy failings.

The SNP should be careful. Once voters started to believe the NHS wasn’t safe in Labour’s hands, they turned from the party in their droves.

The same fate may await the nationalists if they don’t get a grip on the health service.