WHEN NICOLA STURGEON delivered her 2016 ‘Priorities for Government’ speech, the tone was optimistic. She spoke professionally about the sort of Scotland she was pledging to usher in. Speaking of the importance of greater equality of opportunity she said, “it will boost our economy, and enhance the equality of life of all of us. It will help to create not just a fairer nation, but one that is wealthier, healthier and happier.”
But her rhetoric on health has not matched reality. If we take a detailed walk through the data, it is impossible to conclude the First Minister has created a ‘wealthier’, ‘healthier’, or ‘happier’ never mind ‘fairer’ nation.
Even a cursory glance indicates the appalling state of health in Scotland. A Glaswegian man has a healthy life expectancy of just 54.6 years. (Healthy life expectancy (HLE) is an estimate of the number of years lived in ‘very good’ or ‘good’ general health, whereas life expectancy is the number of years an individual is expected to live). There is a huge gap in healthy life expectancy at birth between the most and least deprived areas of a staggering 25.1 years for males and 21.5 years for females.
Healthy life expectancy in Scotland is the lowest in Europe. National Records of Scotland states that “it is estimated that a baby boy expects to live 61.7 years in good health and a baby girl 61.9 years in good health”. By contrast, according to WHO data, the average healthy life expectancy in Europe is 68.3 years with all other European countries having higher HLE than Scotland. At 69.1 years even Albania has considerably higher healthy life expectancy. Scotland fully qualifies for the sad title of ‘Sick Man of Europe.’
And be under no illusions, the SNP carries the can for this situation.
Life expectancy itself in Scotland had been increasing since the early 1980s until 2012-2014. Since the 2012-14 period, Scottish council areas have experienced slowing or stalling improvements in life expectancy. Data also indicates that many areas are now witnessing decreasing life expectancy.
Julie Ramsay, Head of Vital Event Statistics at National Records Scotland (NRS) said in January this year, “The decrease in healthy life expectancy coincides with a stalling of growth in life expectancy in recent years, and has resulted in a lower proportion of life being spent in good health”
Need I remind anyone that the SNP has held power since 2007, and health is a devolved competency? The first SNP Health Minister was none other than Nicola Sturgeon.
We do not need to look far to begin to understand how this situation has occurred under the nationalist administration. If we examine ScotGov’s own data on childhood diet and health, getting boys to eat healthier is even harder than before.
Fewer boys eat the recommended five a day now as compared to the second year of SNP rule. If you look at figure 1, you see the mean portions of fruit & vegetables per day eaten by boys was 2.7 in 2008; and in 2019 a lower 2.6. Not merely no progress, in fact outcomes have deteriorated.
Figure 1: Mean portions of fruit and vegetables per day. Scottish Health Survey 2019.
Overall obesity levels in Scotland also reveals a picture of deteriorating individual health throughout the life of this nationalist administration. Figure 2 shows that two in three adults were obese or overweight including obesity in 2019. This is the highest prevalence in the Scottish Health Survey time series since 2003. Also shown is the rise in obesity, up from 27% in 2008 to 29% in 2019. That entire time-period is within the life of the current nationalist administration.
Figure 2: Scottish Health Survey time series on obesity in Scotland
But it is not just a story of widening midriffs and poorer male youth diet. We were all shocked by the images from Glasgow of hundreds queuing in the freezing snow for a soup kitchen. Figure 3 is the image of hundreds of people queuing for food just yards away from the Corinthian columns, mahogany banisters and shining marble of the SNP-controlled City Chambers.
Figure 3: Community Group Kindness Homeless Street Team say 200 people queued for food in Glasgow’s George Square in sub-zero temperatures in February 2021. Photo credit: Kindness Homeless Street Team
Part of the reason for this disturbing image is the rise of food insecurity under the SNP (alongside appalling stats on poverty, inequalities, and social deprivation).
In 2017, 8 per cent experienced food insecurity (defined as being worried during the past 12 months that they would run out of food due to lack of money or resources). This figure rose to 9 per cent in 2018 and has remained at the higher percentage. More live with food insecurity under the SNP. Hard to square this dismal fact with Nicola Sturgeon’s 2016 era rhetoric of a ‘wealthier’, ‘fairer’ and ‘healthier’ nation.
And our youth feel the food insecurity the hardest in today’s Scotland. Food insecurity is actually most prevalent among the younger than older age groups. 13 per cent of 16–44-year-olds experienced food poverty according to the most recent Scottish Health Survey. 8 per cent of those aged 45-66, and 2 per cent aged 65+.
More tragic still, 31 per cent of single parent households report being food insecure, and 20 per cent of single adult households. This is a national shame, and the SNP is culpable.
Naturally when discussing public health, we need to also refer to other major societal factors, such as urban and rural deprivation, poverty, deindustrialisation. Socioeconomic deprivation is the primary factor behind poor health across the world. And on this score, there is not much positive news for the SNP to write home about. If we take the First Minister’s own constituency of Glasgow Southside, we see an appalling mixture of poor health, poverty, and deprivation.
The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) reveals Govanhill is ranked in the 10 per cent ‘most deprived areas’ in income, education, housing, and crime. Second most deprived in employment & health. Figure 4 shows the SIMD map for ‘all dociles’.
Figure 4: SIMD interactive map 2020 ‘all dociles’, Govanhill in the First Minister’s constituency of Glasgow Southside
Nicola Sturgeon has been either Deputy First Minister, Health Secretary or First Minister since 2007. Her personal salary as First Minister rose from £144,687 (2015) to £157,861 (2020). I leave it for others to judge whether she has sufficiently earned that pay rise.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Scotland, under the SNP, has become the ‘sick man of Europe’. Mortality statistics of Glaswegians when compared to equally deprived Liverpool and Manchester, is alarming reading. The New Statesman reports that “Deaths caused by lung cancer amongst Glaswegians were 27 per cent higher, by suicide 70 per cent higher, by alcohol-related causes 130 per cent higher, and by drug-related poisonings 250 per cent higher.”
Under this administration we have witnessed the ‘nationalist effect’ on individual health. Declining life expectancy, deteriorating childhood health and diet for boys and expanding waistlines amid a worsening obesity crisis. Haunting images of the poor queuing in freezing snow for soup; scenes reminiscent of a Warsaw Pact country. Rising food insecurity, negatively impacting the youngest the most; rendering the lives of single parent households more precarious.
And the good news? The SNP has managed to squander the rapid improvements they inherited on reducing harmful alcohol consumption, in favour of a stabilisation. Meanwhile we witness levels of social deprivation in parts of Glasgow that would make some developing countries shocked. I worked and lived for four years in the People’s Republic of China; and not always in the shining cosmopolitan cities. I can honestly say the deprivation in certain parts of my home city of Glasgow is comparable to some of the worst scenes of deprivation I witnessed out there.
Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss father of analytical psychology, once said, “shame is a soul eating emotion”. A sentiment Scottish nationalism should perfectly understand, for while the SNP has prioritised flags and constitutional politics, Scotland’s health suffers.
Dean M Thomson graduated with a MSc in Development Studies from the University of Glasgow, going on to lecture ‘Anglo-American Society and Culture’ at Shangdong Agricultural University, Peoples Republic of China. Being fully TESOL qualified Dean has taught English for Academic Purposes and modules in critical thinking in Wuhan and Xian Ning, Hubei.