Brian Monteith: Is Scottish independence more important than life, liberty and economy?

Having a strong opposition to hold the government of the day to account is at all times a prerequisite of a healthy democracy, but rarely is it more important than today when our liberties are being heavily restricted and access to our universal health care provider – the NHS – is denied to us if we happen to have the wrong illness.

Monday, 28th September 2020, 7:00 am
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announces a range of new measures last week
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announces a range of new measures last week

Accessibility to the NHS is vital. It is the universal health care provider for the vast majority of our population. Already paying direct and indirect taxes that purchases their “free” healthcare, very few people have the spare funds to access private health care – and even if they do it is likely NHS facilities will still be required and will therefore currently be unavailable due to Covid-19 restrictions.

There is no doubt from the mounting evidence that thousands of people across Britain have died due to the lack of care they should have been able to expect from their NHS. Cancer specialists have been warning for months, and more consultants go public every week, about the thousands who have had early intervention denied to them and are now at a stage where recovery is unlikely. The same problems face those susceptible to strokes, heart conditions or other chronic illnesses, where they have found operations postponed indefinitely. A big question now looms over the country like a very dark cloud; are the measures in response to the pandemic causing or likely to cause more deaths than Covid-19?

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Simply put, are we subjecting ourselves to a cure that is worse than the disease?

Perceptive readers will have noticed that thus far I have only raised the question of getting right the balance of our pandemic response by considering the life-threatening issues that face our healthcare providers. Even using only that narrow criteria I believe we already have that balance wrong. Factor in the issues of the damage to our economy and the dangers of creating what every day begins to resemble more a police state than an open liberal society, and I believe we should expect our opposition parties to be challenging the government decisions that are responsible for the pandemic restrictions.

Parliamentary opposition can come in many forms; it can be the Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, with the leader of the opposition and a team of shadow ministers, each with a particular task of scrutinising the Ministers of the Crown on their individual briefs; it can be chairs of parliamentary committees scrutinising ministers ; it can be backbench members of a government’s own party taking the brave pills and deciding to speak out; and, it can be individual politicians of a calibre and reputation, who when they speak, are intently listened to, making a telling intervention.

To date the really tough questions being put to government both inside and outside parliament have been about process and delivery; look at Italy, should we start our lockdown now too? Have we put in place enough ventilators/PPE/testing equipment? Why are people being moved out of hospital without testing? Why the delays to decisions in Scotland for those already taken in England? When can we move out of lockdown? Are we ready for a second wave? When can we move back into lockdown? When will semi-lockdown become a full lockdown? Can my son or daughter come home from university for Christmas?

Notice how the questions that have been raised do not actually challenge the general approach of lockdown and its accompanying controls.

Who in parliament is speaking up for those without a voice? Who is speaking for the relatives of cancer patients not receiving treatment? Who is speaking for the businesses built up over a life-time being closed for ever, purely because a government decision has shut off its customers? Who is speaking up for those losing not just their jobs, but possibly their careers, their life’s ambition?

Who is challenging Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon about the sense of re-introducing restrictions that more often than not treat everyone the same when we know that the old and the already ill are far more susceptible to fall seriously ill from Covid-19 than the young and fit?

Not the official Labour opposition in London and not the official Conservative opposition in Edinburgh. Well at last in Westminster Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the Conservative backbench “1922 Committee” has started the process of real opposition by laying down a motion that insists any new regulations must come before Parliament to be debated and face a vote.

I would expect his amendment to be chosen by the Speaker as it is likely to attract support from opposition parties and therefore has a very good chance of passing, despite the government majority of eighty.

This can only be the start, however.

Once gaining that right to be heard we then need our MPs – of all parties – to start earning their corn by looking at every proposed restriction on our liberties, our economy and our healthcare and challenging the government to show the evidence that justifies them. Curfews from bars and restaurants at 10pm? Really? There is no evidence to suggest this reduces the transfer of the virus – indeed, because it encourages people to pour out on to the street at the same time it must raise the risk of transfer. There are many more questions like this that would, I believe show we need to be relaxing a number of our restrictions, not extending them. We must open up our hospitals.

What of Scotland?

I watch the First Minister’s Questions and weep. We have been promised a revitalised Conservative opposition but, sadly, I am not yet seeing it. Again, the questions focus on process and delivery rather than should we not be changing strategy? Why lockdown Aberdeen but not Glasgow? Why move towards a second national lockdown when Glasgow and the West central belt is the focus of the problem?

The First Minister appears to me to be on a power trip, her treatment of students being just the latest of many examples. High-viz policing of students in halls of residence? The prospect of students staying there through Christmas?

The House of Commons is showing Holyrood how opposition can find a voice – but who on the SNP backbenches will play the role of Sir Graham Brady – or, more likely, is it the case that independence is more important than life, liberty and the economy?

Brian Monteith is Editor of ThinkScotland.org

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