How state of NHS is key in debate over Scottish independence – leader comment

The then First Minister of Scotland, Labour's Jack McConnell, pictured in 2006  (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
The then First Minister of Scotland, Labour's Jack McConnell, pictured in 2006 (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
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The state of public services could be crucial in determining the outcome of the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections – and the SNP’s chances of holding another independence referendum.

The general election dust may have barely settled, but already the battlelines for Holyrood 2021 are being drawn. And there is an obvious reason for this early preparation – it could turn out to be one of the most important elections in Scottish history.

Assuming the current Scottish Government is unable to hold a second independence referendum before next year, the next Scottish Parliament election could be decisive. In the event of a Nationalist majority, calls for indyref2 will rise and Boris Johnson may struggle politically to stick to his stated position of refusing to allow one.

He may even decide it is in the interests of the Union to hold a vote if the political runes suggest another ‘No’, a result that would be devastating for the independence cause and could knock the stuffing out of some supporters.

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At the moment, it feels like the vote would be close but, as has been pointed out before, much would depend on what kind of country Brexit Britain turns out to be. If 2021 sees victory for the SNP, Scotland could be on its way out of the Union.

However, if there is no nationalist majority, then the question would not arise and it seems clear that opposition parties sense that attacking the SNP’s record on public services is the best way to defeat them.

Former First Minister Lord Jack McConnell has now controversially suggested that the passing of just four bills in the Scottish Parliament last year was the sort of performance to be expected from an “incompetent developing democracy”. The Scottish Conservatives have also been keen to switch the debate from the constitution to more everyday issues of government.

This may prove to be a tricky task. In the general election, Labour tried to shift the focus from Brexit to the NHS, a tactic designed to cover its muddled position on the former. It quite clearly did not work.

However, it is a row that could actually do some good in a roundabout, but democratic, way.

If opposition criticism of the state of the health service and education starts to gain traction with voters, the SNP will be forced to act to improve the chances of their ultimate ambition. And act they should, with the NHS in need of particular care and attention. The danger would be a short-term fix that sounds good, but fails to fix longer term structural problems.

But for those hoping for a break from big politics, we fear any respite may be brief.