Lesley Riddoch: SNP must not presume too much

Scottish independence shouldn’t mean we lose vital services, but no-one seems to be talking, writes Lesley Riddoch

The Queen will reign and the pound will stay... but what about the Lottery, the Royal Mail, MI5, the Met Office, HMRC and cross-border operations on the NHS? Will Scottish independence mean an end to institutions we love and services we need?

Sunday’s papers were full of dramatic headlines about the possible complications of life after a Yes vote in 2014. Scaremongering, raged some nationalists. A reality check, chided Better Together. Two weeks late, muttered journalists who reported the risk to UK public agencies when it was first raised by the coalition government a month ago.

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Clearly independence must shake-up UK-wide delivery of some services – otherwise what’s the point? Equally though, modern neighbours can share and (thanks to Tory privatisation of functions like the Student Loans Company) even purchase services across national boundaries, providing there is goodwill. Indeed agency change is already under way, thanks to David Cameron’s government, whose Scotland Act (devolving more tax-raising powers) has helped create Revenue Scotland. Presumably RS will simply scale up if more tax-raising powers ever come Scotland’s way.

The 200 “at risk” agencies include some Scotland will never need – like the Dartmoor Parks Authority – and some that may soon be abolished south of the Border (like British Waterways, whose demise prompted the creation of Scottish Canals).

But Scots will be jumpy about the possibility of losing access to the Post Office and Royal Mail. A generation of Scots grew up with Postman Pat and helped reverse the Post Office’s ill-fated transformation into Consignia a decade back. Who wants a postal service that stops at Hadrian’s Wall? It’s a potent question. But here’s another which may be tackled first. Who wants to pay extra for letters to the Highlands and Islands?

The Postal Services Act 2011 lets the UK government sell off 90 per cent of Royal Mail – the first shares could be sold later this year. Six weeks ago, a cross-party group of MPs demanded a guarantee that people in rural areas would not end up paying more for deliveries. The coalition government replied that the Universal Service Obligation currently prevents this. But once the Royal Mail is owned by a private operator who can guarantee standard postal charges will survive?

Do privatisation plans or Scottish independence threaten greater change to the Royal Mail? Who can honestly say? What about the DVLA, the Met Office, the BBC and Passport Agency?

The SNP maintains that Scots already own a share of these assets and could opt to keep that share “invested” in UK services unless the service deteriorates. Hence John Swinney’s recent announcement of plans for a single Scottish competition watchdog after independence to ensure good service from UK service providers.

But what about the NHS? Cross-border medical treatment currently relies on contracts between the totally separate NHS systems of England and Scotland. But in Scotland On Sunday, cystic fibrosis sufferer Sally Russell expressed fears that the cross-border healthcare which saved her life would be complicated by red tape and advance payments after independence.

In a powerful piece about her double lung transplant at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, Ms Russell wrote: “The NHS doesn’t recognise borders, it recognises sick people. I don’t want that to change.”

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The SNP insists nothing would change after a Yes vote for patients like Sally because existing contracts for cross-border services would be retained. Better Together asks if the Scottish Government has actually checked that. It suggests the SNP are making a presumption that “everything will be all right” – just as they presumed entry to the EU would be a “slam dunk”.

Who’s right? It’s hard to be sure.

Common sense suggests patients in a separate Scotland can’t be a priority for the English NHS. But health is already Britain’s most separately managed service. How much more could change?

It’s perfectly legitimate for Better Together to raise questions about how vital UK services will reach Scots in the event of a Yes vote. But it takes two to tango.

The UK government is currently refusing to “negotiate separation”. So practical problems are raised then (conveniently) left hanging since Westminster will not get involved in formulating practical cross-border solutions. All is fair in love … and the referendum vote.

The No campaign has scored with this tactic – partly because it raises the spectre of “separation” through gritted teeth, and especially because access to the hallowed NHS is the most powerful card anyone in Scottish politics can play.

That much is clear from furious comments on the Scotland on Sunday website asking how Sally Russell dares use her NHS experience to back the Better Together cause. Of course she “dares”. Unlike most columns by armchair observers, this writer has had the ultimate involvement with the NHS – a battle to save her own life.

If that doesn’t inform her opinions about politics in Britain, what else should? And yet, broadsheet papers south of the border are dominated by threats to the NHS of a different kind.

Britain’s leading medical body has accused the English Health Minister of planning to privatise large sections of the NHS by stealth – in breach of previous promises. This “extraordinary intervention” in a leaked letter by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges apparently puts doctors’ leaders and the government on collision course yet again – in England.

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Meanwhile, another paper reports 1,000 people have starved to death in NHS hospitals in the past four years – in England. And that’s not counting the 1,200 people who may have needlessly died at Stafford Hospital as a result of poor care. Elsewhere it’s revealed that £14.7 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on 600 NHS deals to silence whistleblowers in England – according to figures obtained by a Conservative MP. Once again, this happened on the watch of “not for resigning” NHS England CEO Sir David Nicholson.

All in the Scottish NHS is far from rosy. But smooth patient access to cross-border health care is threatened by more than just the prospect of Scottish independence.

Voters who need certainty will be flummoxed at the possibility of independence-related disruption – however thoroughly the SNP check their presumptions. Voters who can live with uncertainty will live with the “lack of clarity” highlighted by Better Together.

How does the Scottish electorate currently split? That – not “agency angst” – is the 64 million dollar question.