Back in 1994, Harry Redknapp was in charge of a West Ham side playing against Oxford United in a pre-season friendly. A heavily tattooed fan spent the first half screaming abuse at the West Ham players, and so Redknapp told the man “let’s see if you can play as good as you talk”, sent him away to get stripped and put him on for the second half.
At times, it feels like Nicola Sturgeon has done an ‘Arry with the Scottish NHS. Humza Yousaf, the beleaguered Scottish Health Secretary, might have been plucked randomly from a crowd. As the health crisis deepens and Yousaf’s floundering becomes ever-more apparent, he gives every impression of wishing he was back there.
Yousaf, 37, has long been a puzzle to politics watchers. He was appointed to his current post despite an undistinguished track record as a junior minister at transport and then as justice secretary, where his main claim to fame was introducing the farcical Hate Crime Bill. He has spent most of his time in ministerial office being asked by opposition politicians to resign from it – and not because they view him as an electoral danger.
As Scots watch their NHS blow up like the Hindenburg, Yousaf, never much of an orator in the first place, seems to be losing the ability to speak at all. From the brace position he has now adopted – “save yourself” has always appeared to be his motto – there emerges only the occasional whelp of “it’s just as bad in England!”
“It’s not our fault” – if there is one phrase that sums up 15 years of SNP rule, it is this. Never has a government been so passionately committed to body-swerving responsibility and accountability, to leap-frogging the consequences of its own actions. Holyrood has been left in suspended juvenilia by the Nationalists’ inability or unwillingness to face up to reality. Sadly, this stroppy teen approach, this insistence that someone else must always be to blame, has infected Yes voters as a whole. It is an outlook that strips Scotland of agency and dignity.
The stretched, stressed workers in the NHS deserve better leadership, as do the patients who are waiting ever longer for treatment. It is indeed true that health services across the UK are at breaking point, and for much the same reasons – Covid, flu, reduced staffing levels, bed-blocking, etc – but the Scottish NHS is the SNP’s responsibility, and no one else’s. It was up to them to do in advance what they could to mitigate this winter’s crisis – after all, it was blindingly obviously it was going to happen – and it’s now up to them to deal with it in real time. Perhaps, if the First Minister hadn’t spent recent months working obsessively on her latest cunning plan to achieve independence, she might instead have stepped in and lifted some of the weight from her hapless Health Secretary before he came to resemble a man squashed by a falling piano.
The Nationalist approach to public services has always been to take the laziest route – to lavish money on them, and to lambast Westminster for not sending even more money to lavish further. This has never been accompanied by necessary reform and modernisation – in education as well as health – because the SNP has been unwilling to risk its popularity by asking state workers to change their working practices and outmoded habits. It has never been important to the Nats that they govern well, only that they are thought by Scottish voters to govern better than whoever is in power at Westminster. Perception and rhetoric have always been what matter to them above fact and delivery: just catch a senior Scottish civil servant in an unguarded moment and you’ll hear the truth.
After 15 years, the inevitable result of this relentless prioritisation of perception above fact is that Scotland’s public services are rotting. They have been starved of the tough love that is any government’s basic job. The systems in which workers such as teachers, doctors and nurses are asked to operate are unfit for purpose, and fall far behind international best practice – in the highest-performing countries, hard conversations between the state and its employees are always being had and resolved, and compromises reached to ensure the outcome is what’s best for the pupil or patient, rather than the politician. Scotland is decades behind, due to the deliberate intellectual impoverishment of our national debate and leadership.
We seemingly will not wake up to this neglect because the SNP’s greatest trick of all has been the secret behind all magic: diversion. As long as Westminster can be blamed for all bad things, and as long as all sorts of prospective wonders can be cooked up for an independent Scotland, it is easier for the voters to simply look past the uncomfortable truth, which is that the devolved government you elect will deliver the public services you deserve.
[See also: How much of a threat is Reform UK to the Tories?]