We should resist this man’s bleak vision for Scotland

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By Kenneth Roy

An ‘expert’ panel of three, hired by the pro-union parties, has produced what it calls ‘a clear and unambiguous question’ for the independence referendum. The panel was chaired by Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, a person so much part of the Scottish official furniture that he is in danger of acquiring the status of the late lamented Queen Mother – a plinth in our national life which lies beyond criticism.

By Kenneth Roy

An ‘expert’ panel of three, hired by the pro-union parties, has produced what it calls ‘a clear and unambiguous question’ for the independence referendum. The panel was chaired by Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, a person so much part of the Scottish official furniture that he is in danger of acquiring the status of the late lamented Queen Mother – a plinth in our national life which lies beyond criticism.

It is unnecessary to rehearse the Houndwood’s many accomplishments as a man of letters, a theological thinker, a public servant of the highest order, at whose feet governments on both sides of the border habitually fall for commissions and committees of inquiries of all kinds, sage advice, subsequent corrections and amendments to that advice, wise and scholarly pronouncements, and the presidency of this body and that, to name but two. Why, he was only recently elected Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company (no less).

In a speech to the House of Lords on 11 July, just before the intermission for cream teas and gold medals, the Prime Warden prefaced his remarks with a seasonal observation of characteristic wisdom. ‘My Lords,’ he began, ‘I am very happy to welcome the ministerial statement as one of the first distant tweets of a swallow, perhaps announcing some hope of spring’.

The man so optimistic that he believes there is still hope of a London spring on the eleventh day of July was born in Aberdeen in 1941 and, as relatively plain Sir Stewart Sutherland, was principal of Edinburgh University for a while. Whether, in that former incarnation, he was prone to alluding to the first distant tweets of a swallow in mid-July, who knows? He has certainly gone places since.

He is, for example, known as the ‘architect’ of the Scottish Government’s policy of free care for the elderly. He insists that it was never ‘free’ in the sense conveyed by coarse media caricatures of his policy. Whatever. It seems he now takes a different view. Because of our changed demography – ie more people are living longer – he no longer supports free care for the elderly or whatever it was that he supported in 1997. He thinks that a contribution of around £35,000 a year from elderly people with assets of more than £100,000 should just about see to the bare essentials of living.

It must have been fairly obvious, even in 1997, that more people were living longer, and that even more would be living longer in the future, but the ‘architect’ was more concerned at that stage with what he called ‘the spirit of the NHS’.

In his latest tablet he declares that Scotland is spending too much. It could be argued – frankly, I do argue – that, if Scotland is spending too much, he is one of the guilty parties. But never mind: there are ways out of our mess. He suggests that the SNP government might have to consider scrapping free prescriptions, reducing the number of local authorities and denying liver tranplants to people who drink too much. How he intends to identify the boozers who are unworthy of life-saving treatment is an issue for the future, to be decided no doubt by a committee of inquiry chaired by – who else? – Lord Sutherland of Houndwood.

There are only 32 councils for what he erroneously describes as an ‘over-governed’ Scotland. The rather more efficient Switzerland has thousands. Maybe we should simply abolish any pretence of local democracy and go down the Houndwood route of cost-saving centralisation. Let us revive Strathclyde and have it cover the whole of Scotland, with wee regional offices in Dingwall, Lesmahagow and Wallyford. Anyone with a dodgy liver will be referred to the cost-effective national dodgy liver unit in Stenhousemuir, where they will face a tough questionnaire on their drinking habits drawn up by a committee of inquiry chaired by – who else? – Lord Sutherland of Houndwood.

We should have spotted it while there was time. The great mind was moving in a worrying new direction as long ago as 2009 when its owner gave an interview to Holyrood magazine. He wondered aloud whether we should be charging some people for ‘their living costs in hospital’. So much for the spirit of the NHS. According to that invaluable source of parliamentary facts, ‘They work for you’, he has voted ‘moderately against’ equal gay rights, ‘moderately against’ more EU integration and has voted ‘a mixture of for and against’ ID cards and ‘a mixture of for and against’ measures to stop climate change.

All this helps to explain why he is a member of the Order of the Thistle. It is less helpful in explaining why Johann Lamont, leader of that once-progressive force, the Labour Party, thought him the perfect chap to chair an expert panel on the referendum wording. Here it is, then, the ‘clear and unambiguous question’:

Scotland should become an independent state

Oddly enough, this isn’t a clear and unambiguous question. This is a clear and unambiguous statement. The respondent is invited to tick a box of her/his choice. The more complacent among us may, however, assume that we are being invited to agree with the rousing proposition and lazily assent for fear of missing out on any subsequent fireworks display or opening ceremony. They might as well have a piped version of ‘Flower of Scotland’ in every polling booth and a haggis flying past.

What next for the Houndwood? He is only 71, a spring chicken whose cluck may be heard in many another committee before he finally coughs up his £35,000 a year. He proposes in that reasonable way of his that the poor people with assets of less than £100,000 should face a means test for the leftovers. If there is anyone qualified to administer this imaginative scheme it is surely Lord Sutherland of Houndwood. Yet I cling to the hope, and even a little faith, that this man’s bleak vision for Scotland will somehow be resisted.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review