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Alex Salmond: Why should Scotland let itself be ruled by the Tories?

People in Scotland – often the most vulnerable – are suffering from the impact of a government they didn’t elect and which cares little or nothing for their lives, says the SNP leader.

When the inconclusive result of the last UK general election became clear, there was considerable anger among some commentators – particularly from the right – that Gordon Brown was seeking to form a new administration. For our part, although we were not prepared to enter a formal coalition, I made it clear that I was open to exploring the possible involvement of the SNP in an attempt to construct an alternative scenario to what we believed would be the disaster of a Conservative-led government.

But the sense, from many both within and outside the Labour Party, was that although there had been no obvious winner, Mr Brown and Labour had been the clear losers – in England, at any rate. Although Labour had won 258 seats, many people believed that it would have been wrong to seek to form a government on that basis.

Imagine then how laughable and absurd it would have been if a party had won just a single seat in England but had not only sought to lead a government but succeeded in doing so. Such a democratic outrage is so far-fetched that it would not cross anyone’s mind as a reasonable outcome for even a second.

I assume readers in England would, rightly, refuse even to contemplate such a ludicrous possibility. And yet in Scotland today we are subject to a Westminster coalition government led by the Tories, who do indeed have the grand total of one MP north of the border. This affront to democracy gets to the heart of the independence debate. It cannot be right for a party that is overwhelmingly rejected in election after election (in the four most recent UK elections the Tories have returned zero, one, one and one MP from Scotland) to form a government pursuing policies that very few people support. In fact, for half the time since the end of the Second World War, Scotland has been governed from Westminster by parties with no majority here.

So when the Prime Minister agreed with his No campaign ally Ian Davidson, a Labour MP, that he shouldn’t come to Scotland to campaign against independence because he was “a Tory toff from the Home Counties, even one with a fine haircut”, both of them spectacularly missed the point.

I suspect both Mr Davidson and Mr Cameron know fine well that the Prime Minister’s choice of barber, background and nationality are utterly irrelevant. What is important is that people in Scotland – often the most vulnerable – are suffering from the impact of a government they didn’t elect and which cares little or nothing for their lives.

Scottish MPs have voted decisively against the bedroom tax, the welfare benefits uprating bill, means-testing for child benefit, cuts in capital spending, Royal Mail privatisation and many more coalition policies but all of them are being imposed on Scotland anyway.

Within the constraints of the Scottish Parliament, on many of these issues, there is nothing we can do. On others the Scottish government is working hard to soften the blow and to seek ways of mitigating the impact. But it makes a mockery of devolution for the Scottish Parliament to be told to divert money from other services to mitigate the impact of policies that had virtually no support in Scotland in the first place.

Because of the way public services are funded in the “devolved nations”, even policies under the control of the Scottish Parliament are under pressure from the marketising fixation at Westminster.

In 2011 I appeared on the BBC’s Question Time in Liverpool where I sympathised with people in England because of the destruction of their National Health Service that appeared to be taking place. I remarked that in Scotland we had gone down a very different route and had decided to keep the NHS in public hands. Now the shadow health secretary at Westminster is warning that the NHS is under attack and that the Tories are taking the first steps towards an American-style system. It was, of course, Labour that enthusiastically embraced the idea of competition and markets in the NHS and ripped off taxpayers by hugely expanding the ruinous Private Finance Initiative.

Labour supporters must now be watching in horror, as the journey started by their leaders could soon be completed by the Tories, with the result that universal public health provision free at the point of use could become a thing of the past in England.

It saddens me greatly to see what is being done to this great institution, but it is no longer just a case of expressing sympathy. Within the Westminster funding system, the privatisation of the NHS in England could be deeply damaging for the funding of public services in Scotland.

That is because, under the (frequently misunderstood) Barnett formula, if privatisation leads to cuts in public funding for the NHS in England this will lead to cuts to funding in Scotland. So decisions taken in Westminster by governments we didn’t elect have damaging long-term consequences for people in Scotland.

In this respect, it is important to recognise the myth that an independent Scotland will make it impossible for Labour to form a government in the rest of the UK. In fact, in only two of the 18 general elections since 1945 (October 1964 and February 1974) would the largest party at Westminster have been different if Scotland had been independent, and even then, those two governments lasted for less than 26 months in total. So Scotland’s votes within the Union have little or no influence on the make-up of the Westminster government.

But Scotland’s values as an independent country could have a much more profound impact. We could be a progressive beacon for those across these islands who yearn for a fairer society. Even before the Tories entered office in 2010, Danny Dorling, then a professor at the University of Sheffield, calculated that the UK was the fourth most unequal country in the developed world.

In Scotland we do not have such extremes of wealth but the gap between rich and poor is still far too wide. The anti-poverty campaigner Bob Holman, one who was famously sought out by Iain Duncan-Smith, recently announced that he was supporting independence. He wrote: “I was born in England, though I have lived in Glasgow for 30 years. I am a member of the Labour Party, which is against Scottish independence, but I will be voting Yes in September. My decision is not because I have strong nationalistic feelings, but because I believe in democracy and equality.”

And he went on: “An SNP government in an independent Scotland would be committed to abolishing the punishment that is right-wing welfare.”

On this he was right. But I don’t believe such a commitment is confined to the SNP. I don’t believe any government in an independent Scotland would engage in the dismantling of the welfare state we see under way in Westminster today. I would never pretend that governments of an independent Scotland – of whatever colour – will never make mistakes. I don’t believe we have higher values than anyone else. As in all democracies, there will be differences of opinion and a lively policy debate.

But since 1999, the Scottish Parliament has shown above all that taking decisions in Scotland works for the people who live here. When free personal care for the elderly was brought in, the policy was supported by every party in the parliament.

Since 2007 the SNP has resisted the marketisation of the NHS, abolished university tuition fees and removed the means test from prescriptions. We have championed the universal ideal and recently we have worked with Labour to find a way to help the disabled and other people suffering from the cruel and inhumane bedroom tax.

In an independent Scotland with control of social security, I firmly believe there would be no place for the divisive language of “scrounger v striver” which is designed to undermine the welfare state.

Last year, I was honoured to be asked to give the Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture. In that lecture, I recalled Jimmy’s celebrated Glasgow University rectorial address in 1972, in which he spoke of alienation as “the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

When I recited those words I could not have imagined even then the scale of the rise in food bank use and the despair of those forced to turn to them because of the coalition government’s destructive attitude towards social security.

When David Cameron came into office, his big idea was the so-called big society. But what we see today is a shrinking society – one in which the third sector and private companies are being asked to become the public sector’s replacement, not its partner.

So Scotland could indeed be a champion of a progressive society – demonstrating a different and, I believe, a better way.

This does not mean an unreformed state. We have focused on prevention and early intervention. We have made some major reforms, such as the reduction in the number of police forces, and we have cut public bodies from 199 to 113. But we believe in a collaborative model of public services – not one based on competition.

The UK, then, is an unbalanced and unequal society in many ways. It concentrates an extraordinary amount of economic activity in London and the south-east of England. Shortly after he came to office the Prime Minister warned of the consequences. “This really matters,” he said. “An economy with such a narrow foundation for growth is fundamentally unstable and wasteful – because we are not making use of the talent out there in all parts of our United Kingdom.”

However, since then the imbalances have got worse. A recent report said 80 per cent of private-sector job creation was taking place in London. Before Christmas, Vince Cable spoke of London as “a giant suction machine”, draining life from the rest of the country. In Scotland, we have seen an improvement in economic performance since devolution. In fact, even without any revenue from North Sea oil, GDP per head is almost the same as for the UK. With oil and gas revenues our economy, per head, is substantially larger.

Far from being the oil-dependent economy depicted by those opposed to independence, Scotland has diverse strengths and our public finances are healthier than the UK’s.

We have more top universities, per head, than any other country and a food and drink industry aiming to turn over more than £16bn a year. We are major players in the life sciences, financial services, creative industries and other growth sectors. Despite the UK’s neglect of manufacturing, we still have significant manufacturers of international standing and we have enormous potential in renewable technology.

So, the issue for people in Scotland is not if we can afford to be an independent country – after all, we are one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. The issue is how best we can build economic security and create opportunities in the future. The choice is whether to continue as an economic region of the unbalanced, unequal Westminster model, or take on the powers of a national economy in an independent Scotland.

 As with all countries, we will have challenges to overcome. The proximity of a world city such as London can be a great advantage but we need the powers to give Scottish business a competitive tax edge to counter the suction effect identified by Mr Cable. Expanding the working population is an important goal. But we are suffering from an immigration policy driven by a Westminster establishment in fear of the UK Independence Party.

Both the rhetoric and the policy are deeply damaging. The decision to abolish the post-study work visa is already having an effect. In the Scottish government’s white paper on independence – Scotland’s Future – we set out how an immigration policy can be designed for Scotland’s needs within the Common Travel Area.

In Scotland’s Future we also set out phased transformational plans for childcare, which will open up much greater opportunities for women in particular and boost the workforce. This, in turn, will boost tax revenues. Crucially, with independence, that tax revenue will stay in Scotland, rather than being sent to the London Treasury, which will allow us to reinvest to fund the policy. If the SNP was to form the first government of an independent Scotland, it will be this expansion of childcare that will be our priority, so we will not go ahead with the married couple’s allowance planned for next year.

We also propose a collaborative social partnership model to boost productivity. Our Fair Work Commission will have a remit to increase the minimum wage at least in line with inflation, and we will bring together employers and employees in a convention on employment and labour relations to look at a range of issues such as a living wage. By taking these and other measures, Scotland will become a more resilient economy. Other, comparable European countries have achieved higher growth rates and more equal societies, so we know what is possible.

And for the rest of the UK, a strong Scotland will act as a counterweight to rebalance the activity so concentrated at present in the south-east of England. These, of course, are SNP proposals. But the first government of an independent Scotland will be the government that wins the first election in an independent Scotland in May 2016.

Before that government takes office, a Yes vote this September will trigger the start of negotiations with the UK government to ensure the transition to independence. Both the Scottish and the UK governments have signed the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, which commits us to respecting the outcome of the referendum and to working together constructively in the best interests of the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK.

On the issue of currency, the Scottish government has accepted the advice of the Fiscal Commission Working Group that a sterling-zone currency union is in the best interests of an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. The pound is not the property of George Osborne or Ed Balls, nor even Danny Alexander. It is as much Scotland’s pound as the rest of the UK’s.

When Mr Osborne flew in to Scotland to pronounce that he would not accept such an arrangement and would refuse even to discuss the matter with us, the Chancellor chose to misrepresent the fiscal commission’s proposals. He chose also to misrep­resent the size of the Scottish financial sector and the impact of oil-price fluctuations, and offered misleading comparisons with the eurozone.

The Treasury further argued that the UK is the continuing state in international law, and so Scotland is not entitled to a share of the Bank of England, among other things. As a campaign tactic, it seems as if the UK government is insisting on the sole right
to determine what the assets are and which are the liabilities.

Despite the UK Treasury’s position, the Scottish government is continuing to be constructive. Even though the Treasury has accepted that it has the legal obligation to pay back the UK debt in the event of a Yes vote, we are willing to finance a fair share. This is dependent, of course, on receiving a fair share of the assets. It is the UK government that curiously seems to be insisting, through its line of argument, that the rest of the UK must shoulder the whole debt burden.

As Christine Bell, professor of constitutional law at Edinburgh, has pointed out, “Legally under international law the position is clear: if the remainder of the UK keeps the name and status of the UK under international law, it keeps its liabilities for the debt. The UK took out the debt, and legally it owes the money. Scotland cannot therefore ‘default’.”

This is just one reason why I believe that, despite the destructive rhetoric of the No campaign, common sense will prevail and a fair share of assets and liabilities will indeed be agreed. Besides Mr Osborne’s announcement, the No campaign has seized on comments by the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, about Scotland’s EU membership, including a preposterous comparison between Scotland and Kosovo. We have always accepted that it is for the member states to decide the route for Scotland to continue its membership of the EU as an independent country. We have also always accepted that negotiations will have to take place.

But there is nothing in any European treaty that allows for the removal of five million EU citizens against their will because they have taken part in a legal, democratic vote about how they should be governed. Mr Barroso’s comments were followed by a range of experts setting out why he was wrong.

Sir David Edward, a former British judge at the European Court of Justice who describes himself as a moderate unionist, has said there is an obligation to negotiate Scotland’s membership between the event of a Yes vote and Scotland becoming independent.

Yet even more than the legal position, we need to be clear about the EU’s very purpose. It is founded on the principles of democracy, freedom and solidarity. It is in the business of enlargement. To remove Scotland would involve turning its back on these founding values and it is entirely unclear why any EU state would contemplate such a step.

Our vision of an independent Scotland is one of a country engaging fully with the EU and the broader international community, co-operating closely with our friends and neighbours in the UK.

The close cultural and social ties across these islands will continue and, I believe, will be strengthened. We can learn from each other in a partnership of equals based on mutual respect. I passionately believe that an independent Scotland will be a more democratic, fairer and more prosperous country and that is why I believe the momentum is so strongly with the Yes campaign and why on 18 September the people of Scotland will vote Yes. 

Alex Salmond is the leader of the Scottish National Party and the First Minister of Scotland

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.