By his own admission, Malcolm Chisholm’s sternly-worded intervention in the debate about the future of Scotland’s NHS was “out of character”.
Writing in The Scotsman newspaper to rebut Yes campaign claims that independence is the only way to protect Scotland’s NHS from privatisation, Chisholm called it “not just the biggest lie of the referendum campaign but the biggest political lie of all my years in politics.”
The softy-spoken Scottish Labour MSP has managed more than most to maintain amicable relationships across the chamber, even politely but firmly disagreeing with his own party and siding with the opposition on issues such as minimum pricing and Trident. However, even his patience has been stretched by the latest claims and he says he has now “lost all respect” for the SNP over their handling of this issue.
“There have been fairly amicable relations between different people in Labour and the SNP and they are put under strain in the referendum. In general terms, I would hope we can have a civilised and respectful campaign. But I acknowledge that I myself have become very heated on the health issue because it has annoyed me so much. Some people would say I have acted out of character, but that is because I have been so incensed by what is happening,” he says.
Chisholm, who has already announced his decision to stand down from Holyrood at the 2016 election to enable him to spend more time with his grandchildren, has served as both an MP then MSP in a political career that has spanned more than 20 years. He describes his three years as Scotland’s health minister as “the very best time of my political career” and has remained protective of the health service ever since. So he says to see it used in this way in the referendum campaign was “almost sacrilegious”.
“As a minister and indeed in opposition, I haven’t really played health for party politics as much as most people. I suppose part of me has that sort of feeling about health and so I don’t like it being used. I sometimes disagree with things even my own colleagues have said about the health service – it is not so much that I disagree with them, but I do object to health being used as a political football.”
Speaking to Holyrood as the campaign entered its final month, Chisholm says he has watched the “coordinated debate” by the Yes campaign rapidly shift ground, as one by one, arguments about privatisation, charging and funding “boomerang” back on them. He asserts that he sees “no evidence” that people in England will support any party that proposes taking away the fundamental principles of the NHS, which is free at the point of need, adding that to do so would be “political suicide”. While he says that no one is disputing that there are going to be “difficulties” for public expenditure in the next few years, he adds that the irony of claims around health expenditure is that spending on the health service has actually been protected by the Coalition Government.
“We can make many criticisms of the general public expenditure stance of the UK and then you can choose criticisms of the choices they’ve made within that. But health really is the area that has come out as number one,” he acknowledges.
As we move into the final stages of the campaign, he also calls on the SNP to “spare us the sanctimonious claptrap” about the negativity of the No campaign.
“I suppose the final thing that is particularly galling for the No campaign, and this perhaps explains some of the language that has been used, is that for months the No campaign has been called ‘Project Fear’. Hardly has an SNP minister opened his or her mouth without going on about the negativity of the No campaign. So for me, it has been very striking that this is negativity ratcheted up to a new level. Because no one can deny that the intention of this is to scaremonger and frighten people.”
He continues: “The more people indulge in unreasonable comments which provoke an extreme reaction, the more difficult the reconciliation process is afterwards.” However, he adds his hope that whatever has been said and whatever the outcome, both sides will be able to resolve their differences and move forward.
“I think there will be a lot of very devastated people in Scotland on the 19th of September on one side or the other. But I think the politicians will work to repair the damage that has been done.”