Why is Scotland’s Health Secretary facing a vote of no confidence? (Thanks to Labour List.)

On the face of it, the Alex Neil scandal is quite straightforward.

In 2009, before Neil, the SNP Cabinet Secretary for Health and Welllbeing, took on that post, NHS Lanarkshire undertook a review of acute psychiatric services. The findings of that review were that acute facilities at Monklands hospital in his constituency should close, and the resources used to create improved provision based at Wishaw.

At this stage, Alex Neil was not Cabinet Secretary for health etc., so his mandate was very clear: to represent his constituents. This he did, by registering his opposition to the proposal with his predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon.  In turn, she endorsed the view of the Board, which she approved on 27th July 2012.

The order of what happened after Neil’s appointment as Health Secretary on 5th September that year has been recorded precisely.

At 9.43 on the morning 26th September, his private secretary emailed NHS Lanarkshire:

“Mr Neil is clear that acute mental health facilities should be retained in both Wishaw and Monklands. The Cabinet Secretary has asked that you seek agreement with NHS Lanarkshire to reconfigure its plans accordingly. ”

(It has since also emerged that the most senior official at NHS Lanarkshire insisted there was ‘no alternative option’ to the proposed changes on the same morning that Alex Neil overruled him, and insisted ‘service users and carers are fully supportive of the proposed developments’.)

In other words, the policy decided by his predecessor after due consideration and made in the light of both clinical judgement and his own earlier objection, was to be overturned.

This at least suggests a conflict of between his local interest as an MSP and the interest of the wider public good which is demanded by his appointment as Cabinet Secretary. On the afternoon of the same day, however, Neil took a further step, that of passing over responsibility for the review to his junior minister for public health, Michael Matheson.

This gave the impression to the public and to Scottish Parliament that he was avoiding a potential conflict of interests. Prime facie, it looks like he did the dirty work in morning, and then washed his hands of it in the afternoon.

SNP MSP Jim Eadie, on Newnight Scotland last week, tried to explain that the  request on the morning of the 26th September had been to” review” the earlier decision. However, most reasonable people would have a problem swallowing that ‘reconfigure’ and ‘review’ are even close in meaning , let alone synonyms.

And in civil service-speak the anodyne-sounding “ask” is heavily underscored by the unambiguous “Mr Neil is clear”. This is an order to do his bidding … or else.

Readers elsewhere in  the UK should know  ‘Westminster’ (aka ‘WM’ or ‘Westmonster’) is seen as a dysfunctional pit of corruption by Scottish Nationalists, and indeed many of them hold their UK parliament in the same contempt as UKIP holds Brussels and the Tea Party holds Washington, even using identical language about government by “people from elsewhere who we didn’t elect.”

So it is deeply ironic that if Neil had been a UK minister caught in the same situaton, he would have been pretty rapidly out of office, either through resignation or sacking by the Prime Minister.

This is where Johann Lamont took up the cudgels at First Minister’s Questions on 15thMay: “if Mr Neil would not resign, would Mr Salmond sack him?”

The answer from the First Minister was that Mr Neil had acted impeccably and so he would not be sacked. The SNP backbenchers stormed their approval as usual, which is one of the giveaways as to the nature of the SNP and  Holyrood itself.

The most notable feature of the SNP group of MSPs is its supine, mindless support of its government.  At Westminster, a large majority is seen as a liability, as this increases the MPs who win unexpectedly, and these are usually from the fringes of party opinion. They also not expect to get back in, so speak their minds.

So might be expected that the SNP’s Holyrood landslide in 2011 would have brought in a cohort of fire-breathing, anti-establishment Young Scots who would question the leadership at every turn – and would stand no nonsense from the Old Guard if it was found to be compromised.

It only needs to a few minutes of any Holyrood debate to see how this has not happened.

In fact it is quite the reverse: the serried rows of SNP MSPs sit motionless and frequently expressionless, passively soaking up every word from the Leadership, and only bursting into life to when called upon for ‘spontaneous’ acclaim.

The temptation is to make comparisons with politburos and party congresses under communism, and there is serious a parallel to be drawn: these SNP backbenchers know that their careers could be blighted by the nomenklatura process of the party lists. They know that their career would be over if they say what they really think.

But what may be more remarkable is that these people actually believe that they are fulfilling a destiny: theodicy is alive and thriving in the SNP. So if there is a mistake by a minister, or their leaders act against the interest of those they represent, they will either ignore it. Or they most likely believe that it must be part of a greater plan yet to be revealed.

This episode also reveals the flaws in the nature of the Scottish Parliament.

Holyrood was set up to be as non-confrontational as possible, most notably through the PR system which encourages coalition-building and its semi-circular Chamber. In fact, it has proven to be an unsuitable design in both ways, especially in a small and tribal polity like Scotland.

The blight of party lists has already been pointed out above: and if even the late and now Sainted Margo Macdonald could be damned to unelectability on the regional list in 2003, SNP backbenchers know it could happen to any of them.

And the shape of the Holyrood Chamber has already played its role in keeping Neil his job. There can be few more telling sights in British politics than a Prime Minister who knows that they cannot command the Chamber if they continue to support a minister who has become a liability.

This position is brought about by the directly confrontational nature of the House of Commons. Scotland could do with more of it, not just to test and develop policies through robust debate, but in order to hold our ministers like Alex Neil to account.

(First appeared in http://labourlist.org/2014/05/why-is-scotlands-health-secretary-facing-a-vote-of-no-confidence/)

Countdown To Independence.


TEN:             It’s time to leave behind the UK’s colonial state,

NINE:           And the austerity crisis, it’s going to all be great!

EIGHT:       So goodbye to the Tory governments that we didn’t vote for:

SEVEN:       And foodbanks and poverty, we’ll show them the oot-door!

SIX:                We’re staying in the EU, even if they say it’s no-go:

FIVE:            And we’ll get our way in everything – Eck and Nicola say so!

FOUR:         We’ll no’ defer to experts, they’re all cowardly traitors,

THREE:      Supported by Quislings in the BBC and the papers!

TWO:             We’ll take a leap in the dark, buy that pig in a poke:

ONE:             And if there’s no Currency Union, we’ll just all be broke!


How much am I angry about Yes Scotland’s latest poster, on child poverty? Let me count the ways.


The accompanying press release is clear about this image:

“a waist-down image of a little girl in scuffed and battered footwear, dirty ankle socks and a ragged skirt” 

So what is the problem, why is a middle-aged middle class Labour voter so livid about it? Here‘s what.

First, it is an outright and foul insult to every low income parent and child in Scotland and the UK, through its depiction of them as dirty, scruffy and negligent.

I took up the issue with CPAG Scotland whose Director, John Dickie confirmed:

 “As you will see from our own written and visual material we are always very careful to reflect the reality that parents go to extraordinary lengths to protect their children from the poverty they face, very often going without basics themselves in order to ensure their children don’t have to go without.”

I am still at a loss to understand why CPAG Scotland did not also take me up on the challenge that they should condemn this denigration of low income families. (But that is on their conscience.)

But here is a second reason to be furious about the poster: the figure of 100,000 extra children in poverty by 2020. This is in direct contradiction to the Scottish government’s own White Paper which tells us that by the same date the increase will be by  50,000.

Any single child being forced into poverty is of course an outrage, and certainly 50,000 is too high, but the point here is that there is a discrepancy of 100% between the Scottish Government and Yes Scotland.

Why should anyone believe either figure, both of which are being used for partisan propaganda purposes?

In the poster, the small print says in advocating independence:  “There is only one guaranteed way to reverse the growing number of children living in poverty.”

This is a lie.

There are other ways: above all changes in government policy at a UK level, which would also benefit children in poverty in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This may require a change of government, but is does not require independence.

And there is no “guarantee” that independence will reverse the trend.

Anyone reading the poster would imagine that there is a comprehensive, fully-costed proposal for the alleviation of child poverty on the table. However, like the rest of the SNP White Paper, all we have is vague assertions on child poverty: no costings, no projections, no guarantees at all.

And in fact, we know from their actions that the SNP cannot be trusted on poverty and equality issues. For example, they recently voted down a proposal to require the Scottish Government’s contractors and suppliers to pay the Living Wage; similarly, they voted down a proposal for an inquiry into wage inequality.

Most tellingly, we can take the SNP’s proposal for Scandinavian-style “transformational “ childcare provision as an example of how it approaches policies for children and families.

It has transpired since the publication of the proposals, in the White Paper, that there is no evidence for claims which are made. No modelling, no projections,  no costings: and FoI requests for this information have been rejected as being “not in the public interest”. (Which is a laugh in itself: how is the public interest not served by information which will help it make its mind up in the referendum?)

These examples all show that the Nationalists are only interested in child poverty as a propaganda tool, and as a stick with which to beat the UK.

There can be no greater contrast than with the UK Labour governments 1997-2010, which introduced the Minimum Wage and Working Families Tax credits as well as many other measures which reduced child poverty by nearly 1,000,000 across the UK including 100,000 in Scotland. (These were described as “heroic” by the UK CPAG, and were surely just well appreciated by its Scottish arm.)

An incoming Labour government could do the same again, across the UK. What is needed is not a change of nationality for Scots, but a change of government and a change of policies.

The difference is clear: it is between those who see child poverty and will act to fight it, and those in Yes Scotland and the SNP who are concerned only as far as it suits their narrow partisan agenda.

The public should now know:

  • They will use disgraceful images of people in poverty which suggest that low income families neglect their children, and allow them to go dirty and a scruffy, if they think it will win votes.
  • If there is any doubt, Nationalists and their misguided supporters will choose the highest available figure to inflate their claims.
  • They will make claims which are unsupported and they know they cannot support, and when asked to do so, they will claim it is not in the public’s interest to know about such things.

There are three conclusions which we can draw from this disgraceful episode.

The first is that YesScotland is desperate and will do anything, and say anything, to get a referendum vote.

The second is that the SNP Scottish Government has only a skin-deep commitment to equality and to tackling child poverty.

And the third is that if there is a little girl with dirty legs, a frayed skirt and scuffed shoes, what she needs is a bath, some new clothes and some shoe polish.

A greater income for her parents, be they in work or unemployed, is what will help with these, while independence will not help in the slightest.

My latest from Labour List: More notes from the trenches. (with thanks)

Since my earlier post Trench Warfare 2014appeared, two main lines of argument have emerged. The first of these is the charge of being in denial (i.e., that the polls are narrowing alarmingly) and the second is charge of complacency, or at least the risk of it.

The first of these counts – the evidence of the polls – can be most easily addressed through the use of the excellent new tool installed on the What Scotland Thinks website  courtesy of (who else but) Professor John Curtice. This allows unencumbered viewing of the polls on a company by company basis, we can thereby compare like with like and see a series of nearly parallel lines.

Even in the single recent poll which showed a slight narrowing (by ICM on 20th April) “Yes” is stalled on 39%, with the apparent shift being accounted for by movement from “No” to “Don’t Know.” Time will tell whether this is sustained.

Otherwise, the difference between polls is that some of them show Yes perpetually a long way behind, and others show Yes perpetually less far behind.

Nor can the second charge – of complacency or its risk – be allowed to stand. Indeed for many  “No complacency” is now written through our bones like Blackpool on a stick of rock.

And for some of us, there is a still greater spur:  to be frank, we have been spooked by the level of support for such a deeply flawed and even dangerous proposal as that for Scottish independence. As recently as 2010, the SNP (on 20%) polled barely more than the Tories (on 17%) and it was not unreasonable to interpret that  1-in-5 as the core vote for independence.

Therefore anywhere above 25% to 30% in favour of Yes seems much too high, and it must be the task of the No campaign not only to maintain the current ceiling on Yes support, but to drive it down as far as possible before 18th September.  We can do so in several ways.

First, part of this experience of being spooked has been that of the left in Scotland having been fractured by the referendum question. In particular, it has emerged that there are a good number of people on the wider left who see a vote for independence as an opportunity to register their opposition to the coalition government or indeed to the UK state as a whole (ex-far left people from CPGB to SWP fall into the latter category.) These have been given succour by a few old Labour people and individuals like Professor Bob Holman and Billy Bragg who have their own axes to grind.

So there is a need to pursue a left politics in Scotland which is based on – and where necessary even reclaim – the fundamental beliefs of the Labour movement.

We must make it clear that for most of us, as Labour members in the No camp, we start from the position best summed up by the advice a young John Hume received from his father that “you can’t eat a flag.” In other words, the starting point for our politics is economics and class, not nation.

So the findings of the Devolution Commission, with its pragmatic and balanced distribution of powers and taxation based on sharing risks and responsibilities, are an important foundation for No in the coming months. Likewise, the increasing interventions of veteran Labour heavyweights like Gordon Brown and John Reid, plus the specialist inputs of the likes of Brian Wilson (the ex-Labour Energy minister who knows more about Highland politics than anyone in the SNP) are welcome as they gather pace.

Labour’s Holyrood team is weighing in with a strengthened and more cohesive opposition message fronted by the redoubtable and feisty Johann Lamont. Scottish Labour is employing new 12 Referendum Campaign Assistants to get the message out, centred on the almost Obama-esqueTogether We Can initiative. Trade unions are choosing overwhelmingly either to back No or to stay neutral: those opting for Yes are notably thin on the ground.

In the meantime, there are two big contributions which Labour nationally can continue to make.

First of all, and very simply, we must continue to beat the Tories: by doing well in the Euro elections, staying ahead in the UK opinion polls and by winning the Council elections.

As the SNP and its Yes confederates see the opinion polls failing to move as they wish, it is certain that they will attempt to scare the Scottish electorate with the prospect of a Tory government after 2015.

This will clearly become less and less credible, and will be an empty threat on 18th September, if  Labour is odds-on to win 6 months after.

Secondly, Ed Miliband and his Shadow Cabinet must continue to outflank the SNP in real life policy issues which affect everyday lives.

Three excellent examples of this are the commitment to ditch the Bedroom Tax immediately on taking power in 2015 (a year before a putative independence date for Scotland in the unlikely event of a Yes vote);  Labour’s new policy on Zero Hours Contracts; and our proposed controls on private landlords and rents.

So again, we can use (for the last time, I promise) the analogy of the trenches to frame this report from the referendum campaign. The defences are in good order, the troops are in good heart with established and new political supply lines now fully open.

And above all, there is NO COMPLACENCY, although a convincing victory remains in sight.

Letter in Herald today (7th May) – quotes Uncle Bert

Uncle Bert

SOME time ago I wrote to these pages to point out the fatal flaw in the way in which the case for independence is being argued – that is, that those doing so are offering a prospectus with no downside: a sure and safe bet such as the world has never seen before. This point has now been put much better by David Torrance .

In contrast, the No campaign is deliberately putting its cards on the table, not denying that Scotland could be an independent country, but pointing out how we are much better together as part of the UK. The contrast in intellectual honesty is striking.

As Bertrand Russell (no relation: his lot were from Bedford, mine from Brentford) said: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Herald readers will be able to work out which is which, just as Scots are too canny to be taken in by anyone offering a one-way bet.

Peter A Russell,

Latest Herald letter (Beat the paywall)


DAVID Mowat (Letters, May 1) declares that the 40% rule in the 1979 referendum “[helped] to ensure independence was lost despite a majority voting for it”.

This myth cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. The 1979 referendum was not about independence: it was for and against a measure of devolution. (A measure, incidentally, rather smaller than that delivered by the Blair Government in 1999.) And it fell because too few people voted for it.

Peter A Russell