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Why Unionists should stop attacking Nicola Sturgeon's foreign trips

The Scottish First Minister needs to do whatever it takes to cover the bills: that means embracing life as a jetsetting saleswoman.

Whenever Nicola Sturgeon travels abroad on official business there’s a section of the Unionist community that always responds in the same way. The First Minister is grandstanding, they say; she’s attempting to create a distinct Scottish foreign policy to the one pursued in London; she’ll bring back nothing worth having.

This week, Sturgeon has been in China, where she met Hu Chunhua, a vice-premier, and talked about advancing long-term links between the two nations. She also hosted events aimed at boosting Scottish exports, including whisky, salmon and technology. Agreements were announced between Scottish and Chinese universities in the finance, energy and video game sectors.

This is all to the good. No one should pretend that an economy the size of Scotland’s holds much interest for those running the vast and growing Chinese behemoth. In my past dealings with Chinese diplomats, even Britain’s economic heft was viewed with some disdain. 

But this relationship matters to Scotland - and it, and others like it, are about to matter a very great deal more. Those Unionists who scoff at Sturgeon’s efforts on this front should, frankly, put a sock in it. Here’s why. The prospects for the Scottish economy, as things stand, are what one might call sub-optimal. Its growth rate is estimated at 0.6 per cent, compared to 1.7 per cent for the UK as a whole. Government stats show growth to be 2.7 percentage points below those classed as comparable “small EU countries”, namely Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal and Sweden.

An excellent and comprehensive report by the think tank Reform Scotland reveals worrying structural problems. Every English region other than the North East, has a higher number of businesses per capita than Scotland. Scotland has a particular problem with small businesses, i.e. from sole proprietorships up to those employing a maximum of 49 people.

In Scotland in 2016, there were 721 such companies for every 10,000 adults; in the North West of England there were 890; in the East, 1,122; even Wales and Northern Ireland, which typically occupy the basement of UK economic tables, were doing better than Scotland: the former with 866, the latter, 839.

Scottish start-up rates are lower than in all but one English region. Growth in the total number of private sector businesses between 2010 and 2016, at 14 per cent, was the poorest apart from Northern Ireland. The value of Scotland’s exports to the EU seems to have dropped markedly in recent years. Private sector investment in R&D is near the bottom of the UK table. More people work in the public sector as a proportion of total jobs than almost anywhere else.

This is all before the expected impact of Brexit. The devolved government’s own analysis predicts a hit to the Scottish economy of £9-12bn by 2030. It seems unlikely that such a scenario would build business confidence, encourage greater R&D spending, or help rectify the start-up gap. It certainly bodes ill for the future health of our EU export market.

And then there’s the thorny issue of immigration. It’s projected that if there is to be any population growth in Scotland over the next 25 years, it will have to come from immigration. Over the same period, the proportion of Scottish pensioners will increase by 25 per cent, and those aged 75 and over by 79 per cent. At present the UK system does not allow a region-specific approach. Given the likelihood that immigration to Britain will be cut after Brexit – that being the whole point – the outlook for Scotland’s prospects becomes even grimmer.

If Scotland continues down the path of social democracy, as seems likely, it will have to find ways to foot the rising bill beyond constant hikes in personal taxation. It will have to aggressively tackle the existing weaknesses in its economy. It will have to adapt to whatever new strains are caused by Brexit. It will have to get very serious about the condition of its economy, and especially its private sector.

Perhaps this requires the reopening of the constitutional debate – maybe not as far as independence, but certainly with a view to strengthening the Scottish government’s economic toolkit. There might be something of a UK-wide headwind here - there is a growing unhappiness at the economic dominance of London and the South East, and the Metro mayors, now in place in many of England’s largest cities, are positioning themselves to fight this centralism. Something will have to give on immigration.

There has, as far as I’m aware, been little attention paid to the economic opportunities that might come out of Brexit. There will be some, and even if they are second best to staying in the EU, it’s essential they are explored with vigour. Only a healthy and globally-focused private sector can ride to the economic rescue. For that reason, Nicola Sturgeon needs to do whatever it takes at home to cover the bills; and to ignore the critics by embracing life as a jetsetting saleswoman.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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The overlooked aspect of patient care: why NHS catering needs a revolution

The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

A friend recently sent me a photo from her hospital bed – not of her newborn baby, sadly, but her dinner. “Pls come and revolutionise the NHS” the accompanying text read, along with a plaintive image of some praying hands. A second arrived the next morning: “Breakfast: cereal, toast or porridge. I asked for porridge. She said porridge would be ‘later’. Never arrived. (sad face).”

Contrast this with the glee with which another friend showed me his menu at a Marie Curie hospice a few weeks later. He seemed to have ticked every box on it, and had written underneath his order for syrup sponge and custard: “extra custard please”. It wasn’t fancy, but freshly cooked, comforting food that residents looked forward to – “like school dinners”, he sighed, “but nice”.

To be fair, though budgets vary significantly between hospital trusts, a reliable estimate suggests £3.45 per patient per day as an average – only slightly more than in Her Majesty’s prisons, though unlike in prisons or schools, there is no legally enforceable set of minimum standards for hospital catering. As Prue Leith writes in the foreword to a 2017 report by the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, “this means hospital food is uniquely vulnerable to a race to the bottom in terms of food quality, and patient care”.

Plate after plate of disappointment is not only demoralising for people who may already be at a low ebb, but overlooks the part food has to play in the recovery process. Balanced, appetising meals are vital to help weaker patients build up strength during their stay, especially as figures released in February suggest the number of hospital deaths from malnutrition is on the rise. According to Department of Health findings last year, 48 per cent of English hospitals failed to comply with food standards intended to be legally binding, with only half screening every admission for malnutrition.

The Campaign for Better Hospital Food’s report, meanwhile, revealed that only 42 per cent of the London hospitals that responded to its survey cooked fresh food for children – even though the largest single cause of admissions in five-to-nine-year-olds is tooth extraction. Less than a third of respondents cooked fresh food for adults.

Once the means to produce fresh meals are in place, they can save trusts money by allowing kitchens to buy ingredients seasonally, when they are cheaper. Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard, recently tasked by the Love British Food organisation to cook their annual lunch on an NHS budget, explained that this, along with using cheaper cuts and pushing vegetables centre stage, allowed him to produce three courses rather than the two he’d been asked for. Delicious they were, too.

Andy Jones, a chef and former chair of the Hospital Caterers Association, who was there championing British food in the NHS, told me the same principles applied in real healthcare environments: Nottingham City Hospital, which prepares meals from scratch, saves £6m annually by buying fresh local ingredients – “I know with more doing, and voices like my small one shouting out, we will see real sea change.”

Unusually, it’s less a question of money than approach. Serving great hospital food takes a kitchen, skilled cooks and quality ingredients. But getting every hospital to this point requires universal legal quality standards, like those already in place in schools, that are independently monitored.

Nutrition should be taken as seriously as any other aspect of care. The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge