What on earth are they thinking about us down there?


by Kenneth Roy

A cartoon in the Daily Telegraph sums up the current state of tension between the partners in the union.  A disconsolate supporter of the Bullingdon Club – he looks rather like the Prime Minister – stands frozen to the spot while a malevolently grinning Salmond walks off with the swag.  The Cecil Rhodes quote, ‘Remember that you are an Englishman and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life’, has been altered; the word ‘Englishman’ has been scored out and the word ‘Scotsman’ boldly substituted.

Until this cartoon appeared, I fondly imagined that we were still friends with our neighbours in the south or, rather, that they were still friends with us.  But the relationship seems to be ‘moving forward’, as the politicians say.  Below the cartoon, the former Labour apparatchik John McTernan – who played a key role in his party’s Holyrood campaign only four years ago – makes his case against the present level of Scottish subsidy.

As I noted here yesterday, the burden of Mr McTernan’s message is that we get far too much and that what we do get we misspend.  Did he believe this in 2007 when he was representing the Labour Party in Scotland?  If he did, then I paraphrase only slightly the immortal words of John Junor: I think we should have been told.

Up here, we do not take the Daily Telegraph all that seriously.  I was recently in the company of the left-wing nationalist teacher Alex Wood, who made a point of telling me that he read Alan Cochrane in that newspaper (as he reads R D Kernohan in this journal) because although Mr Cochrane’s views in general are anathema to him, occasionally the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish political columnist gets it right.  I suspect Alex Wood is an open-minded exception.  That newspaper’s true power resides in the enormous influence it exercises on the thinking of Tory England, not in its incidental usefulness as an antidote to the Scottish liberal-left consensus.

What on earth are they thinking about us down there?  The aggressive cartoon provides a heavy clue.  Ultimate positions are being adopted, points of no return being approached, on the basis of little more than loose generalisations of the sort rehearsed in Daily Telegraph columns by people like John McTernan and swallowed whole by his Tory England readers.

There may still be time to discuss the boring detail.  I would anyway like to think so.  Mr McTernan cheerfully publishes statements damaging to the Scottish partner.  He articulates them with such confidence that the unwary reader in many a southern shire will unquestioningly accept them as holy writ.  It is, however, possible that holy writ was based on a more reliable form of eye-witness testimony.  

He selects three examples.  I propose to be boring about each of them.  My apologies in advance.

Mr McTernan assures Tory England that Scottish schools are delivering lower exam results than English schools.  There is an inherent absurdity about this claim.  We cannot compare the two sets of results since the students in each country sit different exams.  Some argue, however, that the Scottish Higher is superior to its English equivalent; indeed it is not long since the (English) Royal Society recommended that England should emulate the Scottish Higher for its greater choice and flexibility.  But Tory England, short on facts, has already got the message: the more the feckless Scots spend on education, the dimmer they become.

Mr McTernan assures Tory England that Scotland has fewer police officers – a quarter fewer, he says – than England: another case of the Scots taking the loot but failing to ‘deliver’ (as he would put it).  Here are one or two salient facts extracted from the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics.  The average number of police officers per 100,000 population in western Europe is 356.  Scotland comes fairly close to that average: we have 317 police officers per 100,000.  England and Wales, in contrast, has only 263 police officers per 100,000.  Far from Scotland having a quarter fewer, we have a fifth more.

Mr McTernan assures Tory England that hospital waiting times are longer in Scotland despite higher spending on the NHS north of the border.  Here he appears to be on safer ground.  The NHS pledges to treat 90% of patients within 18 weeks of referral by a GP: or did until the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, relaxed this commitment.  In England, 90.5% of patients are treated within 18 weeks, although in London and the south waiting times are considerably longer.  In Scotland, 85.2% of patients are seen within 18 weeks; despite recent improvements, we still do less well, though not dramatically so.  Mr McTernan is also accurate in his claim that we spend more on the NHS: between £200 and £250 per head more.

But where are the qualifications essential to any understanding of these statistics?  A Nuffield Trust inquiry found that Scotland has the highest levels of poor health in the UK; we are plagued by what the Scottish Government rightly calls ‘deep-seated issues of deprivation’.  We spend more, we queue longer, because we suffer worse health than our friends in the south.  Twelve years of partial self-government have not solved this endemic problem in our society.  Nor is it at all reasonable to suppose that they should have done; it will take many more years of patient work.  There is a further difference overlooked by Mr McTernan: Scotland has a sprawling land mass with many areas of scattered population, including islands, which are more expensive for the NHS to administer than the more concentrated populations of England.

These are the dull facts and the inconvenient nuances. I do not doubt that there are others less friendly to the Scottish case.  It shouldn’t be too late to use them as the basis for a civilised chat before the two partners go their separate ways or patch it up.  But then I look again at that Daily Telegraph cartoon, and feel only a chill presentiment.


This article was first published in the Scottish Review.