Earlier this year, when all of us in Scotland were being distracted by either a) the approaching cries of “Freedom!” or b) the prospect of the break up of Britain (you choose), the Scottish Government quietly centralised driving assessments for people with disabilities. If you are disabled and you want to have your fitness to drive assessed, you must now travel from your home to Edinburgh, and not just to Edinburgh but to the Astley Ainslie hospital on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh, a location difficult to access by public transport.
This, of course, has major implications for people affected by stroke, especially if you live in a rural community with limited public transport options. In the UK, if you have a stroke, you lose your driving licence for a temporary period and you have to apply to get it back through a government office (the DVLA). While it is not mandatory to have a driving assessment as part of this process, many stroke survivors feel it prudent to do so, and until the Scottish Government took the decision to centralise the arrangements, it was possible to be assessed either in Edinburgh, or at various regional centres around the country.
If you live, for example, in Inverness, you can take a taxi to the station (say £5.00), get the train to Edinburgh (three and a half hours, £58.80 return), take a taxi to the hospital (twenty minutes, £10.00 each way), have your assessment and return home – a long and expensive day out for you, and perhaps your carer as well. I have chosen Inverness as an example, but what happens if you live on one of the islands? In the real world, far removed from the theoretical world of the civil servants who made this decision (we’ll come back to that), stroke survivors count the cost of such a journey, not in pounds and pence – those are eventually refunded to you – but in sheer effort, exhaustion and stress. A year after leaving hospital I failed my driving assessment after a relatively modest 40-minute journey into Aberdeen. In my weakened state I was absolutely exhausted afterwards. I could not have contemplated the journey to a hospital on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Faced with that now, I’d probably trust to luck, fill in the relevant forms, see my doctor and hope for the best. I wouldn’t bother with the assessment.
So what does this have to do with the referendum? Well, possibly quite a lot. You would imagine that the decision about driving assessment would have been taken after consultation with the relevant people – charities, disability groups, perhaps even disabled people themselves. However, this decision appears to have been made by civil servants without consultation and without due consideration of the duties of public bodies under the 2010 Equality Act. Leaving all of that aside, you would imagine that a Scottish government should take into account the geography of its own country.
But in my view it is a symptom of something much wider.
In the referendum we are being asked to vote for an independent Scotland that is very much a manifesto of the SNP. As no other vision of independence is being offered, we’re entitled to look at their record in government over the last 7 years to see the kind of Scotland we are likely to have. Sadly, while undoubtedly some good things have been achieved, the big picture is one of centralisation, government from the top down and above all a growing sense of division – not just between Holyrood and Westminster, but between Scot and Scot. Police and fire services have been centralised; the Scottish government have given us the ghastly acronym GIRFEC (getting it right for every child) – a system of state guardianship that will allow the police, local authorities and health professionals to share personal information about our children; there are routinely armed police on our streets – I don’t recall being consulted about that; in a small way the centralisation of driving assessments is just another manifestation of that process of pulling everything in towards the centre. And now Jim Sillars, formerly a deputy leader of the SNP, says that businesses which have spoken out against independence will face a “day of reckoning” after we are no longer part of the UK. That is not the kind of government I want to have in Scotland – one which threatens and bullies anyone who dares to criticise it, and which increasingly draws in more power to the centre. I suspect I’m not alone.
Most worrying of all in this campaign has been the increasingly strident nationalism we are beginning to see and hear. As we see elsewhere in the world, extreme nationalism always divides, is frequently intolerant and sometimes violent. It risks tearing apart Scottish society, despite the protests from some that we are all having a nice civilised discussion about our future: witness the verbal and physical intimidation of Better Together supporters (routinely referred to as “traitors” on line), vandalism of posters and mindless on-line thuggery. Alex Salmond’s failure genuinely to condemn this divisiveness, intolerance and outright bullying from his own supporters does his cause no good. If such behaviour is a reflection of the SNP vision of an independent Scotland, then most sensible Scots will want none of it.
To be fair, harsh things have been said on both sides, but I fear the divisions will be hard to heal after 18th September, regardless of the outcome of the vote. Whoever wins, healing, not celebration, will be the top priority on 19 September. Changing the decision about driving assessments will have to wait.