When in June last year Jeremy Hunt became the longest-serving English health secretary, the BBC article about the milestone started with these words:
“He has overseen worsening waiting times for cancer care, hospital operations and emergency treatment. Hospitals have bust their budgets by record amounts. And there has been the first all-out strike by doctors. But despite all this, Jeremy Hunt has remained as health secretary in England.”
Hunt finally relinquished the post a month later in order to become foreign secretary, a position to which he has brought the same reverse-Midas touch.
For example, just last month in Slovenia, while trying to seek support for the UK’s increasingly desperate Brexit position, he gravely insulted his hosts by publicly claiming that they had been a “Soviet vassal state”, a remark that also demonstrated his ignorance of modern European history.
So, it was hardly surprising that he should be at it again this week in Glasgow, when he contemptuously claimed that “of course” the UK Government would refuse any request for a Section 30 order from the Scottish Government.
What was incredible, however, was what followed, when he advised the Scottish Government to concentrate on delivering in the areas of health and education instead.
I suppose I am more used to the arrogant, dismissive and indeed boorish behaviour of UK ministers than most. But even I am offended that a minister who has made such a complete bùrach of his own responsibilities and caused so much suffering for patients and staff – and one who follows that performance with regular embarrassing mis-speaks as foreign secretary – should feel entitled to act as if he was an exemplar of good practice, instead of a shocking example of gross and serial failure.
The fact is, the metrics for the NHS in England remain considerably worse than those in Scotland. And the day after he mentioned education – while speaking in one of the four universities in a nation of five million people that is in the world’s top league – press reports featured head teachers of schools south of the Border being refused even a meeting with the English education secretary to discuss their shredded budgets.
The New York Times this week described the times the UK is living through as a “golden age of ministerial incompetence”, focusing particularly on Chris Grayling, whose actions have cost the public purse literally billions – but also including all those from the Prime Minister downwards who are responsible for the indescribable Brexit chaos.
Yet, they all remain in office, as deaf to the demands of accountability as they are immune to any sense of embarrassment at their all-too-public disasters.
A few weeks ago, I met a former senior Labour minister on the train from London to Glasgow.
Despite our differences, we agreed that the current UK Government is the weakest in our lifetimes.
Yet it behaves, collectively and individually, as if it has a God-given right to rule, and sneers at neighbouring governments (Ireland regularly gets the same treatment as Scotland) flush with a completely false and foolish sense of exceptionalism.
Our neighbours in England have many admirable qualities (and I speak as someone who is half English), but they are being badly let down by their current government, the appalling behaviour of which is alienating even those who would like to be its friends.
This was demonstrated all too clearly last week, not just in how rudely and inappropriately Jeremy Hunt behaved on Thursday in Glasgow, but also in how his colleague the Attorney General presented himself to the House of Commons on the same day, boasting vulgarly of his negotiating “codpiece” in a booming, bombastic voice, while having precisely no progress to report.
Clement Attlee – one of the last great UK prime ministers – once suggested to a departing Cabinet colleague that “a period of silence would be in order”.
A period of silence from the empty vessels on the Tory UK front bench would be similarly welcome. They aren’t masters of the universe – they are blundering incompetents who you couldn’t successfully send for the messages, and the embarrassing adulation which they receive from the subservient Scottish Tories at Holyrood is merely a sign of how pathetically supine the latter have become.
All the norms of democracy agree that the legitimate government of Scotland, acting with a larger mandate than that enjoyed by Theresa May, is entirely within its constitutional rights to seek to ascertain the public’s view on our national way forward if we are indeed dragged out of the EU against our will.
And those norms also demand that such a process be, at the very least, constructively discussed – not contemptuously rejected by the over-rated and ridiculously overbearing specimens currently in power at Westminster.