Holyrood must show its heart is in the right place for all its citizens

Kevin McKenna
Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA

Those of us who have been disobliging of Holyrood’s attempts to micro-manage Scottish society should resist the urge to gloat now that they are beginning to unravel. At the end of last week, John Swinney, Scotland’s education minister, was compelled to make a U-turn on the Scottish government’s controversial named person scheme.

This legislation, no matter how well intended, was simply unworkable and risked the prospect of troubled families in disadvantaged communities being unfairly branded as unfit. The scheme would have seen every child in Scotland, from birth to 18, assigned a named person, typically a teacher or health professional. The backlash from concerned parents and professionals in Scotland’s social services sector was overwhelming. Much of this was also exacerbated by the usual suspects from Scotland’s sauvignon classes portraying them as backward and illiberal.

In 2016, the UK supreme court ruled that the central proposal to share information about children across various agencies was unlawful and that it risked undermining rights to privacy and family life guaranteed under the European convention on human rights. Subsequent attempts at redrafting were always doomed and should have been scrapped.

In recent years, though, this government, fired up by a tiny cabal of social engineers, has believed that it is better placed than parents and wider families to make decisions on how the nation’s children should be reared.

Scotland faces a dismal nexus of health and social problems ranging from infant mortality to health inequality that have remained stubbornly impervious to attempts to improve them after two decades of full self-government in these areas. There is no evidence that at-risk children could be better identified by involving a third adult in our family dramas. It merely sounded good and conformed to a narrow social agenda created by people with little knowledge of the daily patterns of despair that many thousands of families encounter in real life.

A similar arrogance underpins the assisted dying bill, perhaps the most sinister of all, which is progressing through Holyrood with a chilling inevitability. Thus sad and distressing tales of suffering at the end-of-life pain endured by a loved one have been weaponised with scant regard for wider consequences. Nowhere in this debate has there been any meaningful discussion about increasing resources for palliative or mental healthcare.

Nor has much been said about the appalling instances of patients being deprived of essential care against their will because there was no one to speak up for them and whose complex mental health needs were conveniently bypassed. In this, euthanasia and assisted suicide are peddled as a “choice”, along the lines of “if you don’t want it, you don’t have to get it”.

But for some who live with incurable disorders or diseases, choice is relative. Such conditions mean reliance on other people and expensive treatment. If euthanasia becomes a legal option, how many sufferers will feel required to justify these resources and pressurised to consider an “assisted” exit?

Few of us wish to see our fellow humans suffer unnecessarily at the end of their lives but the egregiously one-sided nature of this debate raises fears about what pressures “civilised” society might transmit to mentally fragile people who are deemed to be an economic burden. Thus we begin to operate in the realms of a despairing, free-market health capitalism where compassionate assisted dying inevitably becomes an easy option to do away with the vulnerable, the voiceless and the financially straitened.

Nevertheless, it’s unhelpful to condemn a government for seeking to do what it believes is the right thing in situations where messy lives and distressingly prolonged deaths are being played out. Those who seek to bring the apparatus of the state and the legislature to bear on these sensitive areas are doing so out of compassion and a desire to do the right thing and to improve lives. Thus, it was depressing to watch the SNP’s opponents chirrup in joint condemnation of Swinney at Holyrood. Many of these individuals seem to require all of their political acumen simply to dress themselves and get to work. This is especially true of the Labour party in Scotland, whose terminal incompetence is a betrayal of those communities that need it to be so much better.

On Thursday, Swinney, an excellent politician respected on all sides for his fundamental decency, struck a note of defiance when he said that the government’s goal in its named person initiative had been to improve the protection of vulnerable children: “I will not apologise for trying to find the best way to try to do that.” And I get that, just as I grieve with the families of those who find the pain of a loved one unbearable to watch, a pain that eventually comes to startle all our families.

I’d merely ask that they spend more time and energy making a positive difference to the lives of the many disadvantaged young people who are already condemned to lives of pain by geographical accident.

Don’t play God in our complex, private human transactions but be crusaders against the public iniquity of one-sided austerity and global capitalism. Scotland possesses some of the tools to undertake this task – we should think about using them more wisely. Forget the assisted dying bill and let’s have an assisted living one instead.

• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist