Saturday 25 January 2014

The SNP would destroy what the NHS stands for

There’s something perverse about the SNP claiming to be the defenders of the NHS. The reason for this can be found in the letter N in NHS. When the NHS was set up in the forties it stood for something that would be available to everyone across the nation. But the nation that was being talked about was, of course, the UK. The people who created the NHS didn’t want a service that would only be available in England or Scotland. They wanted a service that would be available to everyone, no matter where they were from. It was for this reason that they called it the National Health Service.

Over time the NHS has evolved. Health is one of those areas that has long been devolved. We have a Scottish NHS, a Welsh NHS, a London NHS. These are devolved further into various trusts. But none of this really matters for the NHS is still national in the sense that it is something available to every citizen of the UK. It is available to me just the same if I’m on holiday in England or in Wales or in Northern Ireland. It still remains national in the same way in which it was created. It remains something British, something for all of us who live in Britain.

What the SNP are proposing to do is the very opposite of what the founders of the NHS wanted. They want to make the National in NHS apply only to Scotland in the same way that the National in SNP only applies to Scotland. Whereas the founders of the NHS had a vision of something that was available to every Briton, the SNP would like to break up the NHS, in the sense in which it was founded, and make it something that is no longer British but only Scottish. They want to create an NHS for the Scots, while the founders of the NHS didn’t think in those terms at all. After all, one of the reasons for setting up the NHS was that the British people had just suffered together through years of war and privation and no one cared much if you were Scottish or English, such distinctions mattered little when you had been fighting and dying together.

Had they been given the chance, would the SNP have set up a National Health Service in the forties? No, of course not, they would only have been bothered about healthcare in Scotland. But imagine if Nye Bevan had been a Welsh Nationalist and had only been bothered about healthcare in Wales. We would never have had an NHS at all. It was because he had a national vision, which extended beyond Wales that he was able to see that Britain needed a health service that would be free to everyone, no matter which part of the UK the person was from. It was because he was not a nationalist that Bevan was able to create the NHS.

It should be clear then that the SNP are not in the business of defending the ideals of the NHS, they are in the business of wrecking them. The NHS is a British institution and like every other British institution it would be destroyed by the SNP vision of independence. The Scottish NHS would of course continue, but it would no longer be part of the same whole, just as Scotland would no longer be part of the same whole. There would also be an NHS in the rest of the UK. But these organizations would share no more than the same initials. They would be separate organizations, with no more in common than the French NHS or the Australian NHS. That’s what it means when you change the meaning of the word “National” from British to Scottish.

I’ve no doubt that in an independent Scotland the Scottish NHS would provide us with excellent health care. But we would lose something and something quite special, which can be illustrated in the following way.  I heard a rather tragic story the other day about someone from Aberdeen who is really struggling with her health. She needs a transplant. Recently an ambulance took her all the way from Aberdeen to Newcastle, because there is a centre of excellence there in the type of care she needs. When a transplant organ becomes available anywhere in the UK, she will be flown to Newcastle by helicopter as will the organ. Our NHS is interconnected in ways that most of are hardly aware of until that time when we depend on an expert or a hospital somewhere quite far away in another part of the UK. What nationalists fail to realise is that it is because Newcastle and Aberdeen are part of the same country that we can expect cooperation like this to happen automatically. The SNP may try to promise that everything would stay the same if we voted to put Newcastle in a foreign land, but independence would change all our lives in ways that are hard to predict.

At present I can expect to obtain good and largely free healthcare throughout Europe if I fall ill on holiday. Moreover there is healthcare cooperation between separate countries like Britain and France. We can hope that these sorts of arrangement would continue in the event of Scottish independence and that we would get the same sort of treatment as a Frenchman gets currently in England. But the interconnectedness of healthcare which at present obtains across the UK does not obtain between Britain and France and over time is liable to be disrupted by Scottish independence. The reason for this is that such interconnectedness depends on our being part of one country, the UK. In all sorts of ways that we barely notice, our everyday lives are influenced by the interconnectedness that exists because we live in a single nation state, Britain. Whatever the SNP promises, they cannot promise that this degree of interconnectedness would continue for independence essentially is about creating a separate nation state. No two independent nation states are as closely interconnected as the parts of one nation state. Once this is understood, it becomes clear that Scottish independence involves the loss of something fundamental and something that we all take for granted. We might not even notice its loss until such time as we need it.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Expressing uncertainty is not scaremongering

I wrote recently about why accusations of scaremongering by SNP supporters were illogical. Normally I don’t receive many replies on my blog, which is fine, as I don’t really have time to engage in endless debates with people who have already made up their minds. However, this time I obviously rather touched a nerve. I got a fair number of replies, even including one signed RevStu. It became clear to me that supporters of independence are pretty reliant on making accusations of scaremongering as their stock form of counter to whatever their opponents say. Without it they would rather be at a loss. No doubt it is for this reason that they defend so vigorously their right to make these claims.

Let me say that the replies I received were sensible, polite and well reasoned. I replied to a couple and then I was away for a while. On my return I thought it worth writing again on this issue. I think it is also worth mentioning before making any criticisms that, on the whole my impression of independence supporters has improved since the referendum campaign began. They often put forward well thought out arguments and their sincerity and belief in the cause of Scottish independence is obviously deep. It is this however, that I think sometimes leads them into difficulties. They care too much.

I begin to find some of the toing and froing about the various issues involved in the independence debate rather tiresome. I’m sure many of us do on both sides. The way I was trained to think is anyway more abstract than this. When I wrote about scaremongering before, I used as examples the debates regarding whether an independent Scotland would remain part of the EU and would keep the pound. These were however, merely illustrative of the logical point that to accuse your opponent of scaremongering is to assume that you are in possession of the truth and that he is lying, which in an argument is clearly circular. My opponents chose not to focus on the logic, but once more presented arguments for why Scotland would keep the pound and remain part of the EU. These arguments were well made if familiar. They amounted to the standard SNP line on these issues. As I’ve said, I find these arguments tedious and the debate futile. It rapidly descends into he said, she said, this would, that would. So instead of putting forward counter arguments, I merely said that these matters were uncertain. This is really another way of saying that it is pointless and dull to debate these things further.

I would have thought that to express uncertainty about matters which are being debated in the press about which different politicians have expressed different views would be uncontroversial. But it turns out that even to express uncertainty amounts to scaremongering. The reason for this is that according to one reply “it's the definition of scaremongering - to say things which have *absolutely no chance* of happening might happen, purely to frighten people into doing what you want.” Thus, even to doubt the SNP view about various future events turns out to be scaremongering for these events are completely certain to take place as they predict and wish. I’m not denying that my opponents puts forward some good arguments for why Scotland would keep the pound and remain in the EU in exactly the way the SNP wishes. But that does not mean that these arguments are decisive. If there were no possibility to debate further after these brilliant arguments, how is it that the debate continues? Why do UK supporters in the press and among politicians continue to express doubts about what the SNP thinks will happen in the event of independence if there is absolute certainty about these matters?

How can it be that merely expressing uncertainty about controversial issues of political debate can amount to scaremongering? The reason for this, according to my opponent, is that I am expressing uncertainty about something that is certain. But in order for me really to be scaremongering it is also necessary for me to know that this something is certain. The position of my of my opponent thus amounts to the idea that I know that his position is the correct one, but I choose to lie about it in order to scare other Scots into voting against independence. What’s more not only am I acting in bad faith, but so are large numbers of politicians and members of the press who also have been accused of scaremongering. All of us are lying, because we must know that the SNP position about the various contentious issues of debate is the true position, but choose to present it either as false or uncertain. It’s only under these circumstances that the charge of scaremongering would be legitimate, for if we genuinely believed that the SNP position were either false or uncertain, it would not be scaremongering to point this out.

To say the least this accusation of scaremongering shows an extraordinary confidence in one’s own ability to discern truth. In matters of human society it is rare indeed for someone to think he is absolutely certain. When there is political debate about the future course of events there are often real experts who genuinely disagree. For me to describe an opponent as a scaremonger in such a debate, for instance, about the future course of unemployment or inflation, would invite puzzlement in academic circles even if I was able to put forward good arguments for my point of view.

In politics there are normally a number of sides to a debate. There are usually people more intelligent than most of us on both sides of the argument. Most of us accept that reasonable people can have different opinions. When we get to the stage where someone claims that there is “absolutely no chance” that something will happen, or that he alone is in possession of truth and we are in error, it is natural to wonder if he is engaged in politics or a new sort of religion. He is beginning to show that he cares too much.  

Like most Scots I am pretty uncertain about what would happen if Scotland were to become independent. I’ve been listening to both sides of the debate and because I think the SNP has been putting forward some good arguments, I’ve thought it worthwhile to put forward some counterarguments. I believe there are matters about which Scots can sincerely disagree. I understand why SNP supporters wish to emphasise what they think would be the benefits of independence and to downplay any possible disadvantages. But if I am not even allowed to express uncertainty about certain future events about which there is controversy how can I debate at all? To accuse opponents of scaremongering is to accuse them of lying. This is not the way to bring about the respectful debate that Scotland needs.

Whenever a country becomes independent this involves great change. To believe otherwise would be to suppose that independence were some tiny thing of small consequence. But wherever there is great change there is also uncertainty. To express this simple fact is not to engage in scaremongering. There is uncertainty about what an independent Scotland would be like. All of our lives would be changed in ways that are sometimes hard to predict. The majority of us know this and the blind faith of nationalists will not put blinkers on us.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Do you have to feel British to support the UK?

People who live in Scotland have a variety of identities. Someone might just have arrived from elsewhere in the European Union. Such a person might feel wholly Polish, not at all Scottish and not at all British. Alternatively, someone living in Scotland might have come from another part of the UK. Such a person might feel wholly Welsh, not at all Scottish and not at all British. Likewise there are some people who have not come from elsewhere, who have always lived here, who feel wholly Scottish and not all British. On the other hand, it is just as possible for people living here to have complex identities. Let’s imagine someone whose grandfather arrived in the UK from Poland during the the last war. Such a person might feel partly Polish, but also feel Scottish and British. Equally someone who has always lived in Scotland might feel British. That’s how I feel, but I also recognise that these matters are complex and are often a matter of family circumstances, upbringing and chance. 

It is important to realise that people with many different identities will vote in the Scottish independence referendum. The franchise is such that anyone living in Scotland who is a citizen of Britain, the Republic of Ireland, the EU and in certain circumstances the Commonwealth can be a voter on September 18th. Now it is certainly the case that not all of these people will feel British. Nor will many of them feel Scottish. Yet they will, in part, determine the result. But is it possible for someone who does not feel at all British to support the maintenance of the UK? Well let’s look at the issue from the other side. Is it possible for someone who doesn’t feel at all Scottish to support Scottish independence?

To their credit the SNP have a number of supporters and MSPs who are not Scottish in the traditional sense. There are people who were born in England who support the SNP and want Scotland to be independent. There are also people who were born in parts of the Commonwealth or can trace their origins to these countries. Some of these people may feel wholly Scottish, but it is equally possible that some of them may feel not at all Scottish. They live here and they may agree with the SNP’s case for independence. They may think that independence would be beneficial both to them and to others living in Scotland. Perhaps they agree with the SNP’s case with regard to decisions being made in Edinburgh rather than London. Perhaps they agree with the SNP’s economic arguments. The SNP are appealing to all voters in Scotland no matter what their origin or sense of identity. That is as it should be.

But what then of those people from Scotland who feel wholly Scottish and not at all British? Should these people inevitably support Scottish independence? Not at all. Those of us who support the UK should equally well be appealing to them. Why would we want to give up on any section of the electorate? What if someone who feels wholly Scottish and not at all British, disagrees with the SNP case for independence? What if he thinks that it is better for Scotland to remain in a union of nations with England, Wales and Northern Ireland? It is far from inevitable that someone from Poland, who does not feel at all British will vote for Scottish independence. Some, no doubt, will be persuaded by Mr Salmond’s arguments, some will prefer that Scotland remains a part of the UK, others will be indifferent. But what is true of Poles who don’t feel British, should likewise be true of Scots who do not feel British. The fact that such a person does not feel British need not hinder his recognising the benefits of Scotland remaining in the UK.

Someone who feels wholly Scottish and not at all British may have lived in Scotland his whole life. But for all of this period Scotland has been part of the UK. Has being a part of the UK in any way hindered his sense of identity? Has this person been any less of a Scot because he’s lived in the UK? Well let’s imagine that this person had been living in France for the past twenty years. Would his Scottishness have been diluted by his living in France? Not necessarily. He could still feel 100% Scottish. But if someone felt 100% Scottish and not all any other identity, could such a person be more Scottish? Clearly not. Well then if Scotland were to become independent would such a person become more Scottish? But how can you become more Scottish if you are already 100% Scottish? This would only work if Scottishness were like the amp in Spinal Tap that goes up to 11. What if Scotland votes no and we remain a part of the UK? Would this person’s 100% Scottish identity be diminished? Why should it? He feels 100% Scottish now living in the UK. Why should his Scottishness go down if this situation continues? So we can conclude that the result of the referendum will neither help nor hinder this person’s sense of 100% Scottishness. Therefore the person who feels wholly Scottish and not all British should feel equally free to look favourably on the case for independence as the case for the UK. His sense of identity need not cloud the issue. 

But why if I did not feel any sense of Britishness would I want to remain in Britain? Isn’t it more natural for someone who feels wholly Scottish to want Scotland to be independent? Well let’s look at this issue in terms of another sort of union with which we are all familiar. How many of us feel European? I know that I don’t. I’m not even quite sure what it would mean to feel European, though I recognise that I live on that continent. Somehow it’s far too abstract. I accept that there may be some Europeans who have this feeling of Europeanness. But I somehow doubt that it is common. But many people who have no sense of Europeanness can see the benefit of their country being in the European Union. This issue of an independent Scotland remaining a member of the EU has made up quite a large part of the debate about independence. I don’t wish to get into the merits or otherwise of EU membership. The point I am making is that someone can clearly wish to be part of the European Union without feeling any sense of Europeanness. A German and a Frenchman may have no particular feeling of Europeanness, but recognise that it is a good idea that both their countries are in the European Union. But what is true of the EU is likewise true of the UK. A Scot can feel no sense of Britishness, but recognise the benefits of his country remaining in a union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is really a matter of simple logic. Just as I don’t have to feel European in order to want to be a citizen of the European Union, so I don’t have to feel British in order to want to be a citizen of another union, the United Kingdom. There is no requirement to feel British in order to recognise the benefits of this membership. Of course, no one is preventing you feeling British if you want to, but it’s not a requirement. 

Someone who feels 100% Scottish is probably something of a Scottish patriot. But what should someone who is really patriotic do with regard to the future of his country. Such a person should do the thing that is best for his country. What this means in the context of the independence referendum is that the patriot should weigh up the arguments of both sides and vote for what is best for Scotland. It may seem inevitable at first that the Scottish patriot, who feels 100% Scottish, would vote for independence. But on reflection he might realise in the same way that it is probably in our best interests to remain in the European Union, so it is probably in our best interests to remain in the UK. If a Scottish patriot recognises that remaining in the UK will lead to a better future for Scotland, then voting against independence would be the patriotic thing to do. Scottish patriotism is not synonymous with independence, otherwise there would have been few enough Scottish patriots these past few hundred years.

I understand why some Scots who feel themselves wholly Scottish and not at all British are drawn to the cause of independence. But it is important to realise that Scottish patriotism and Scottish identity does not control how we vote. Rather we must weigh up the arguments and reflect on what we think is best for our country. Most of us recognise that there are advantages to Scotland being in the EU, which logically means there would be disadvantages to us leaving. The same goes for the UK. If there had not been advantages to being in the UK, how do you suppose that this union would have lasted for so long? Logically if there are advantages to being in the UK there must be disadvantages to leaving. That in essence is the whole debate. To suppose that there were no disadvantages to leaving is really to suppose that we would not leave. So always maintaining that there are no disadvantages to independence is peculiarly self defeating. Recognising this fact is to realise that there is nothing to prevent someone who feels wholly Scottish from voting No. Indeed if such a person were to be  persuaded by the arguments of people like me that remaining in the UK is in Scotland’s long term best interest then it would be his patriotic duty to vote No. I’m sure that many such proud Scots will vote No when the chance comes.