Apocalypse now? Not for Dr Gruer


Two years ago today, he was Scotland’s prophet of doom, predicting social upheaval and widespread deprivation. He himself, however, is not a victim of the recession, as SR reveals

by Kenneth Roy

On this day – 1 February – in 2009, a senior figure in the NHS delivered to the Scottish government an analysis of Scotland’s social and economic prospects devastating in its dystopian vision.  Exactly two years on, it is instructive to consider what has happened to the prophecy and to the man who made it.

Dr Laurence Gruer was then, and remains today, director of public health science at NHS Health Scotland, the national agency for ‘health improvement’.  But his critique of the recession and what it would do to the people of Scotland went far beyond any reasonable interpretation of his vocational remit.  It was sweeping in its range, apocalyptic in its conclusions.  Dr Gruer saw in his crystal ball the disturbing form of a new dark age.

In perhaps the most disturbing official report received by the SNP administration during its four years in office, this high-ranking public servant spelled out in uncompromising language the consequences of the financial crash.  “The upheaval,” he wrote, “can be expected to create changes in socio-economic conditions in Scotland of a magnitude not seen since the early 1980s … the causes of the recession are unprecedented and the rapidity and severity of their onset are only matched by the Great Depression of 1929.”

Dr Gruer unfolded for his masters in government a detailed scenario of a social fabric ripped apart by an epidemic of rising crime, fraud, racism, drug abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, obesity, depression and suicide.  All this he foresaw as the result of people ‘struggling to make ends meet’ in a western consumerist society characterised by a ‘have-it-all’ mentality.

The political reaction to this extraordinary prognosis was almost uniformly hostile.  Labour’s Richard Simpson exposed the fallacy of the comparison with the depression by pointing to the general improvement in the national health and to the nature of the global reaction to the crash of autumn 2008.  He said that “something so full of doom and gloom at a time of uncertainty creates a sense of despair that is unnecessary and inappropriate”.  Dr Simpson, a medical man himself, hinted that his colleague had overstepped the mark and should return to public health issues, while Mary Scanlon, for the Conservatives, stated that the report was ‘not a constructive way forward, neither does it help people cope with their current problems’.

While most people ‘struggle to make ends meet’, Dr Gruer inhabits a world of enormous privilege.  He will retire with a pension pot of £1.3m.

On 1 February 2011, with the recession officially over, for the time being at least, there is little evidence to support Dr Gruer’s more extreme predictions of a disintegrating society.  Unemployment in Scotland, although it is higher than it was before the crash, bucked the UK trend last autumn by falling.  Since the crash, Scotland’s crime rate has dropped by 10%.

There is suffering, of course, real suffering – all too evident in the cuts to public services and the closures on the High Street – but, to date, we seem to have stayed on the right side of the Apocalypse.  The only occasion on which the word has been used recently in the Scottish press was to describe the chaos caused by a fall of snow.  The snow melted, the M8 reopened, the children went back to school, and there was no more talk of Apocalypse.

Should we, then, be interested if a prominent member of the governing elite gets it wrong?  Could experts in general not be loosely defined as people who are paid to get it wrong?  Badly wrong in the case of swine flu – ‘the virus that wasn’t listening’ according to one such expert when the millions expected to die stubbornly refused to catch it.

But there is a peculiar dimension to Dr Laurence Gruer’s sensational intervention in the sociology of the recession, and it has only now emerged with SR’s examination of the small print in NHS Health Scotland’s annual accounts for 2009-10.

Two months after Dr Gruer submitted his report to the Scottish government, a new financial year began at this ‘special health board’ – the first full year since the crash.  If ever there was a moment for restraint, surely this was it.  You only had to read Dr Gruer’s report to understand why.  Yet, at some point in the depths of the recession, between 1 April 2009 and 31 March last year, Dr Gruer – the man who had warned the Scottish government that people ‘struggling to make ends meet’ would be driven to depression and suicide in increasing numbers – received a salary increase of £25,000 a year.

A pay hike of this magnitude (to borrow one of the doctor’s own words) would have been remarkable at any time.  Weighing in at 13.5%, it took his annual salary from £185,000 to £210,000 in a single leap.  But in the circumstances, with the ‘rapidity and severity’ of the recession’s onset ‘only matched by the Great Depression of 1929’, such a pay increase for a senior public health official cannot help looking insensitive.  It looks insensitive to the plight of the majority so graphically described by Dr Gruer himself, insensitive to the need for fiscal responsibility, insensitive to the state of the frontline NHS.

No doubt the Scottish government, or Dr Gruer’s PR department, will find some way of justifying the increase.  But there is no way round the essential facts.  Unless he decided to forgo the increase – and there is no note to that effect in the accounts, so we must assume that he took it – he suddenly became £1,250 a month better off, even after paying tax at 40%.

In the wake of his report to the Scottish government, the journalist Gillian Bowditch wrote: ‘I don’t know what sort of world Dr Gruer inhabits’.  The information unearthed by SR perhaps goes some way to answering her question.  While most people ‘struggle to make ends meet’, Dr Gruer inhabits a world of enormous privilege.  He will retire with a pension pot of £1.3m.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.