An election to define and shape the UK — and the NHS

It has become standard in election campaigns for political leaders to declare that the current contest is the most important ever, or at least the most crucial of modern times.

This time, however, it really is the case. The coming election is, by any reasonable benchmark, the most important to be held in the UK since the end of the second world war. It has the potential to define and shape the path of the UK and that of our European neighbours for many years to come.

It will not just be a potentially defining moment for Brexit — it will also probably determine whether many of the assumptions about the kind of country the UK is remain in place or are ripped apart.

The Conservative election slogan is brutally simple but profoundly misleading, and the Tories should be exposed for it. For, make no mistake, Brexit will not in any sense be “done” within the next few months.

Detailed talks on a future trade agreement between the UK and EU have not even begun, and the notion that they could be wrapped up conclusively within the next 12 months is fanciful in the extreme. That means the spectre of a no-deal outcome is very much still looming over us — the danger would only be postponed, not eradicated.

That the Conservative party is prepared to proceed with such a course of action and the potentially catastrophic impact it would have on jobs, the economy and wider society is utterly unconscionable.

But Brexit of any kind, deal or no-deal, is just the first part of a Conservative plan to reshape the UK in a way that could destroy much of the postwar consensus on issues such as health and welfare.

Their vision of a low-tax, low-regulation offshore economy is one that should concern everyone. Boris Johnson’s desire for a post-Brexit trade deal with the US is clear, but what is also increasingly evident is the potential concessions that would entail.

If there is one institution which embodies the post-1945 UK political settlement, it is the National Health Service. More accurately, it is a number of separate but related institutions, including NHS Scotland, control of which is the responsibility of the government I lead. But across the UK as a whole, the NHS is threatened by the prospect of a Boris Johnson government including it as part of any trade negotiations with the administration of Donald Trump.

Putting the NHS on the negotiating table in any such talks would threaten the founding principles of the health service: to meet the needs of everyone, be free at the point of delivery and that it be based on clinical need not ability to pay. In essence, a re-elected Johnson government poses perhaps the biggest threat to the NHS in its history.

The Scottish National party has proposed an NHS protection bill, a piece of legislation which would require the consent of devolved administrations before any trade agreement could be concluded. We also propose an increase in health spending across the UK. The range of progressive policies we would seek to agreeoffer a contrast with the Johnson government. Under this prime minister, the Conservatives threaten a race to the bottom on environmental protections, food standards and employment rights.

The SNP would never help put the Conservatives into office — but in pursuing these policies we would also act as a positive influence on any Labour-led administration.

Scotland was promised in 2014 that rejecting independence was the only way to protect our place in Europe. We now find ourselves facing the prospect of being taken out of the EU, single market and customs union against our will. In the five years since then, the UK has descended into an ungovernable shambles — very far from the stability that was promised. So at the heart of the SNP’s election pledge is the right of Scotland to determine its own future

The writer is first minister of Scotland


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