The supporters of St Margaret of Scotland Hospice who attended yesterday's debate in the Scottish Parliament left Edinburgh with a heavy heart after the closing speech of the cabinet secretary for health, Nicola Sturgeon. My email inbox is groaning this morning with some exceptionally candid points of view about Miss Sturgeon's performance. 'Disinterested complacency' is the least of it. Is this criticism altogether fair? I will come to that shortly.
Coincidentally, I received first thing today an email from a politician of high reputation, now retired. He was writing to me privately about another matter and I have not sought his permission to name him, but it is worth quoting what he has to say about the current debacle:
'I am left open-mouthed with amazement at the way the Scottish Government and Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board have treated the story on the hospice. I have been a long time, a very long time, in politics from the lowliest level to the highest and I can still be amazed at how people will not respond to genuine public concern about public conduct'.
And yet, I can't bring myself to share the bleak mood of the moment. The first thing to be said is that the debate represented progress. The fact that it took place at all – for which its initiator Des McNulty must be, and was, congratulated – was progress in itself.
There are 129 members of the Scottish Parliament. If ever there was an opportunity for the friends of the health board to come forward in open defence of its policy and conduct in this matter, yesterday's debate presented that opportunity. None did. I suppose you could call Miss Sturgeon an exception, but then she is the minister ultimately responsible for the board's policy and conduct.
Some defence, then, was to be expected from her. As one astute and dispassionate observer has just pointed out to me, she played to the ministerial middle ground, conscious that her civil servants had been backing the board's position for years. But one sensed that her heart was not quite in it. She read out a few alleged facts, prepared by the board, about the decline in the need for continuing care of people nearing the end of their lives. If you accept these statistics, in the face of all demographic evidence about human longevity, you will accept anything. It is possible that Miss Sturgeon herself is not wholly convinced by them. She then expressed a commitment to the hospice and her sense that a solution could be found to the present impasse. And then she sat down – to a somewhat stony silence.
But although her speech has dismayed the hospice's friends, the debate was surely less about Nicola Sturgeon's speech than about the exercise of a decent democratic spirit in Scotland.
Good people from all parties (except the Greens: perhaps this is not their scene) spoke quietly and sincerely. Des McNulty opened and hoped for joy. Sadly, the cabinet secretary did not provide as much of that precious commodity as he might have been entitled to anticipate after his long and tenacious campaign. The SNP's Gil Paterson followed – a fine contribution from a parliamentarian who feels deeply about the issue. Ross Finnie, for the Liberals, spoke witheringly of the health board's handling of the matter and in particular of its chief executive's notorious letter to the hospice setting out the unpalatable 'options' for its continued survival.
Jackson Carlaw, the Conservatives' spokesman, repeated his constructive suggestion for the appointment of a mediator or 'special representative' to broker an agreement. From Labour's Jackie Baillie, there was a warm tribute to the Scottish Review for its investigative journalism and the strongest possible commitment to the restoration of funding for the hospice. From the unputdownable Margo, there were sharp, pertinent questions. And, of particular satisfaction, there were several expressions of support for John Bannon, the board member obstructed in his search for the truth.
For me, this was a moving occasion: an hour beyond the point-scoring of party politics, well-informed, non-confrontational, conducted with dignity. It was a justification of Scottish parliamentary democracy. It spoke well of this country.
Well, that just leaves the health board. The cabinet secretary's speech was not the most ringing endorsement of a public body I have ever heard. Not one of our other 128 elected representatives spoke in the least well of the board. Of course, not all were in the chamber. But had any of those missing felt strongly that the health board had acted wisely and well, that its conduct was beyond reproach, no doubt they would have considered it their public duty to come to the chamber and speak. Yet there was not a single voice.
What is this if it is not a serious breakdown of trust in a major public body?
The cabinet secretary says she is committed to the hospice. She says that a solution can be found. She talked of a 'window of opportunity'. In this window, there is no room for ministerial detachment: the cabinet secretary must help to find the solution. Yesterday's debate was not the end of the affair. Miss Sturgeon and her civil servants should be aware that this one is simply not going to go away.