Leaders: Devil in the detail for NHS

If England was a foreign country, would Scots get access to NHS treatment south of the border? Picture: Getty
If England was a foreign country, would Scots get access to NHS treatment south of the border? Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

THE debate about whether Scotland should be an independent country is too often couched in arcane terms.

Financial regulation, the division of assets and liabilities, treaty obligations and the price that would be exacted for entry to the European Union – they are all important issues, but outwith a dedicated band of enthusiasts and political anoraks they do not have the capability to engage and enthuse the ordinary voter. Also, as Labour MP Douglas Alexander pointed out in his well-judged Playfair Library speech on Friday night, the referendum on independence may be new but the debate is not. Much of what passes for a campaign is based on arguments that have been tried and tested in Scottish political discourse for decades. Which is why the Better Together contribution today that forms part of this newspaper’s Scotland Decides series makes a refreshing change. The story of Sally Russell’s lung transplant takes the campaign away from policy wonks and brings it down to a personal experience people can relate to.

Sally Russell’s point can be simply summed up: would the ease with which she received life-saving treatment in an English hospital be replicated if Scotland was independent and England was a foreign country? The SNP responded yesterday with words of reassurance, quoting European Union protocols that they insist would allow such treatment to go ahead on a similar basis as it does now. The debate as to whether this is correct will now ensue, but the broader point is one that the Better Together campaign believes can have some traction in the referendum campaign. Because issues such as this make it necessary for Scots to examine some things – like immediate and automatic access to health care throughout the UK – that they currently take for granted, and may not be able to in the same way if Scotland won full sovereignty. There will be many other examples. Take just one: how will a teenager apply to university if the seats of learning on his or her short list are split between two countries with different admission systems?

Issues like this are not insurmountable. No doubt there would be a way – albeit one involving a degree of red tape and some initial uncertainty about waiting lists, as well as a financial transaction between health services – that a Scot in Sally Russell’s position would be able to get the treatment she needed. The political issue is that it demonstrates the administrative reality of Scotland and England being – in an official sense at least – foreign countries to each other, in the same way that the UK is to, say, Belgium at the moment. It is a strong campaigning suit for Better Together because they know that the harder the SNP and Yes Scotland work to spell out how these barriers could be worked around, the more they draw attention to the barriers themselves.

Privately, some Nationalists are dismissive of the kind of campaigning that looks in granular detail at the administrative details of how an independent Scotland would work. When the NHS was created, they argue, did we worry about the number of bedpans that would be required? Or did we simply back the principle and get on with delivering it, and work out the detail as we went along? And they are right – for a committed supporter of independence, these are mere details. The problem is that the people the Yes campaign needs to persuade are not committed supporters, and the kind of details raised by Sally Russell are the kind that make them pause.

Raise the roof

HARD to believe with thousands of cars barrelling past on the M9 every day but Linlithgow Palace, a romantic ruin if ever there was one, was once the country seat of the Stewart kings of Scotland. It was to this picturesque lochside retreat that royalty came to get away from the stresses of 16th-century court life in the great fortresses at Edinburgh and Stirling. Sadly, it was robbed of its importance in the higher reaches of Scottish national life when the Duke of Cumberland’s troops torched it while pursuing Jacobite rebels in 1746. But, thanks to a strange combination of Historic Scotland and the fashion house Chanel, the West Lothian palace may have a brighter future with 21st-century relevance. The government’s heritage agency, as we report today, is considering whether to re-roof the palace, which has been open to the elements for more than 250 years. In part, this is due to the success of Chanel’s Metiers D’Arts show at the palace in December, which used a temporary plastic structure to shield its well-heeled guests and coterie of supermodels from the harsh Scottish winter. If that success can be repeated with more permanent roofing then Linlithgow Palace could become a money-spinning attraction of global importance. It’s a bold and inspiring move from an agency not renowned for radical thinking, and re-roofing the palace is an idea that must be explored.