WELL, that was me telt! My column last week on the difficulties of shifting the older generations towards independence stirred up a bit of stushie. And although many comments in The National and on social media expressed support for my views, it would be fair to say that the article did seem to upset some people.
For that I would apologise – although my intention was not to disrespect the over-65s but to explain, perhaps a bit over-zealously in parts, why we have to be realistic.
On the positive side, I was accused by a fair few critics of being a young whippersnapper with no understanding of the older generation. Alas, that’s not the case. For the record, I’ve been voting for parties that support independence since 1983 and first became actively involved in politics through the trade union movement 35 years ago. So, I have been round the block a fair few times.
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As it happens I agree with many of the points raised by those who criticised my views. In any debate – especially within the broad pro-independence movement, which encompasses a vast diversity of political opinions, social backgrounds, age groups and nationalities – all sides should be prepared to listen respectfully and learn – as well as express opinions.
So, while I stand by my central point that the priorities for any future independence movement should be the younger age groups and the poorer social classes, I don’t advocate writing anyone off, irrespective of age or income level.
So, to be more constructive about how some older people could be shifted, I would suggest that the SNP and other pro-independence parties take seriously some of the suggestions in the paper published last week by former health secretary Alex Neil.
If there is one issue more than any other that has the potential to win over significant numbers of pensioners, it is the NHS.
Here in Scotland, we are fed a daily diet of bad news about the state of our hospitals and other health services.
From cancer waiting lists to health professionals’ pay caps, from A&E waiting times to debt-ridden boards, it seems that hardly a day goes by without a negative story about NHS Scotland on the front page of one newspaper or another.
Despite the screaming headlines that greet you every time you walk into a newsagent or supermarket, the 2016 Social Attitudes Survey found that 60 per cent of people in Scotland are satisfied with the way the NHS was being run.
And of the one third who are dissatisfied, 40 per cent blamed UK Government policies while only 25 per cent held the Scottish Government responsible.
That means about eight per cent of Scots have a major issue with the way that Shona Robison is managing the health service, which, all things considered, is not too bad.
A survey asking people to make a simple choice between satisfaction and dissatisfaction can only ever paint a partial picture. It doesn’t measure the depth of feeling.
Last month, a quarter of a million people marched through the streets of London to protest against the savage health cuts being bulldozed through by Westminster.
Things may not be perfect in Scotland, but we do need to draw more attention to the state of the NHS elsewhere. In England, nine out of ten hospitals report a dangerous shortage of nurses; in England and Wales prescription charges are about to rise to £8.50 an item and the Red Cross has warned of a “humanitarian crisis” because of A&E cuts.
It is the biggest spike in mortality since the Second World War – and the experts predict that the 2016 figures will reveal this is no aberration, but a long-term trend.
The likely cause, says head researcher Professor Martin McKee, is “the impact of cuts resulting from the imposition of austerity on the NHS.”
THINGS may be better in Scotland, but Shona Robison is having to juggle with the double challenge of rising life expectancy and relentless austerity cuts from Westminster.
Alex Neil, I know, can be a controversial figure, and I don’t always agree with him – not least on Brexit. But his call for a radical long-term plan for Scottish health services makes sense – and could go some way towards answering the fears of the over-60s about the future of the NHS post-independence.
At the heart of his paper – A Stimulus for a National Debate on the NHS – is the idea of removing the NHS from general taxation and funding it via a ring-fenced progressive tax. When applied to taxation, the word “progressive” can mean different things to different people, but for me it means setting bands that truly reflect disparities of income and wealth.
Across the North Sea, Denmark and Sweden have top tax rates of 60 per cent and 57 per cent respectively – and they’ve never had to build border walls to stop the wealthy fleeing to lower-tax neighbouring states. Establishing a health and care tax may make it easier to move in that direction. Alex Neil suggests the Scottish Government seek the power to establish such a system under devolution. For me, however, it has more potential as an idea that could be implemented within a future independent Scotland.
It would account for about 20 per cent of total state spending, and so could be used as a kind of pilot scheme to demonstrate in action the benefits of a more progressive taxation regime.
And it would send a strong message to the electorate – and especially our senior citizens – that an independent Scotland will not only guarantee the future of the NHS, but will generate the funding to expand and improve it.