A STRANGE thing happened this week. I was a TV newspaper reviewer on the day Alex Salmond was due to give evidence to the Holyrood harassment enquiry and the day after Peter Murrell had appeared for a second time. Imagining the channel’s story selection, I spent some time picking through the minefield for something positive to say about the enduring case for independence. I wasn’t relishing the prospect. I know, like and admire people on all sides of the schism within the SNP and dislike personality politics at the best of times.

So, imagine my surprise when the Holyrood inquiry simply wasn’t raised. Why not? Fa kens. But Adam Boulton was more curious about a different facet of Scottish political life – our social care system.

It seems Boris Johnson is set to abolish GP-led clinical commissioning – David Cameron’s flagship policy which ushered in the wholesale privatisation of the English NHS. If true, that’s a U-turn of monumental proportions, matching only the Prime Minister’s surreptitious cancellation of NHS Trust debt the day after lockdown.

But according to one Times columnist, there is a big problem with Johnson’s NHS reform plans (what only one I hear you cry) – no mention about the future of social care.

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Yip, after all we’ve been through with Covid, the British Government thinks a new, revised English NHS can ignore the massive issue of elderly care.

And that’s where the Scots come in handy.

After all, when our politicians aren’t trying to take lumps out of each other, they’ve presided over a concerted and fairly successful attempt to cross the great divide separating care (provided by councils) and health care (provided by the NHS) using the piecemeal powers of devolution. No mean feat.

Henry McLeish’s Scottish Executive started the ball rolling with free personal care for adults 20 years ago – an idea Westminster has only started to consider.

In 2013, Alex Salmond’s Scottish Government introduced self-directed support for folk with disabilities, giving service users some control over the way their allocation of state cash is spent – another Scottish reality that’s only being vaguely considered now, south of the Border.

In 2016, Nicola Sturgeon’s Government integrated health and social care, creating 31 bodies with health and council cash pooled to avoid the familiar situation where someone could return to their own home but remains stuck in hospital because the council lacks the cash to make small household modifications.

Five years on the Scottish system isn’t perfect, but it’s working.

And last week a review into the future of adult social care in Scotland advocated the creation of a National Care Service – not a nationalised service, but one where national standards apply to a mix of community, private and public services and Scottish Government ministers assume responsibility and control.

Along with Scotland’s stubborn refusal to allow the privatisation of our health services, there’s a fair body of work, thought and experience there – enough for a shameless Tory prime minister to cut, paste and present as his own work.

It’s ironic.

The disastrous Tory privatisation of the English health service is finally but discreetly being ditched. And there’s not enough political space for the SNP – the staunchest advocates of a public NHS – to hold them to account for the misery they’ve inflicted, because all available energy is being eaten up by ferocious internal battles.

In fact, that’s not just ironic.

It’s desperate.

Now Scotland’s social care system is not home and dry – not by a long shot. The Review into Adult Social Care is controversial. Centralising governance of care services to Holyrood feels like the wrong direction of travel and many Scots will be wary of funding a substantially private sector effort. But without more economic levers or any borrowing powers, the Scottish Government might reasonably argue there’s not much else it can do – except make Scots wait years for a better state-funded system under an independent government.

What’s the best course?

I really don’t know. Nor will most readers. Our political taste buds have been switched off to such really important debates – partly by Brexit, partly by Covid, partly by the power struggles within the SNP but mostly by the unsatisfactory halfway house Scotland currently occupies.

Our own Parliament at Holyrood matches Scotland’s political will but can only mitigate and part-fund bits of new systems, whilst the UK Government has all the power but none of the progressive commitment needed to set up a care system that works.

Scots are stuck betwixt and between – it’s why we so badly need to move on towards independence – yet from a southern perspective, the Scots have already boldly gone where Boris Johnson fears to tread. When it comes to progressive policy reform, Scots are widely assumed to have better, fairer systems already up and running.

Compare and contrast.

The British Government is set to axe the £20 uplift in Universal Credit. Even though child poverty is at epic, Dickensian levels, Covid-related pressure on families hasn’t relented and British benefits are amongst the lowest in the developed world.

MEANWHILE in Scotland, families with kids under the age of six are preparing to receive a £40 monthly uplift from the Scottish Government via the new Scottish Child Payment from next week. No, it’s not enough, but yes, it’s a godsend – brought about by the Scottish Government actually listening to every poverty charity and child wellbeing pressure group two years ago when they pleaded for the new benefit to be fast-tracked as a priority. The Scottish Child Payment won’t undo the British Government’s harsh Universal Credit cuts, but it will certainly help.

In short then, the Scottish Government and the SNP have a reasonable story to tell about the different direction Scots has taken on social policy. But does anyone know?

So, here’s a thought.

Whoever wins the clash between Salmond and Sturgeon – if there can ever be a real “winner” – the SNP has suffered a serious knock to its confidence and credibility. The response cannot be more of the same – more demands for conformity, more weary online events, more stage-managing and less actual debate. It should be exactly the opposite. The end of legal action – however it ends – should prompt a new start with a really vigorous SNP spring conference building on what unites the party and the vast majority of Scots – the slow, successful, decades-long, shared project to build a new Nordic-style welfare state north of the Border.

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The SNP will undoubtedly survive its current self-inflicted wounds. But like any individual recovering from a serious health scare it must ditch unhealthy old habits – pronto. And if the party leadership doesn’t volunteer such change, members must demand it. It’s no use sitting back watching the Big Beasts slug it out. SNP members are responsible for the state of their party and must now force it to learn from – not repeat – the mistakes that obscure the hard-won political gains of the Scottish Parliament.

It’s time for a spring clean of structures and personnel to refresh, revitalise and repurpose party structures. Time to introduce a separation of powers at the top and find normal ways for perfectly normal dissent to be aired and accommodated inside the party – not across newspaper headlines.

Of course, the old maxim is true – disunited parties don’t get elected. But in the end, visibly fractured parties held together by habit, fear and blind loyalty don’t last.

What a terrible tragedy either outcome would be, when Scotland’s steady progress towards a fairer society is finally commanding respect across the UK – and converting Scots to the great possibilities of independence.