'Teeth are devolved' and other election conundrums

Dentist Image copyright Getty Images

I feel for them, I really do. Our elected and aspiring politicians, that is. Here they are in the midst of an election campaign, beset by constitutional constraints.

Not that you would notice the problem. Candidates and parties are cheerfully campaigning in this Westminster election on issues which are either devolved to Holyrood or are, more accurately, the preserve of local councils, suitably refreshed last week.

For example - and it is just one example - Labour are majoring today on a promise to lift the cap on nurses' pay in Scotland.

They have pursued the case with vigour, a Scottish Parliament debate and an earlier Edinburgh encounter with nursing staff.

Obliged to respond, Scottish ministers say they understand the anxiety but note that they have endorsed each and every independent pay recommendation, leaving nurses better off in Scotland than in England or Wales.

All substantive stuff. Except that it is a devolved issue for MSPs to settle. And it would remain a Holyrood issue even if Labour were to win every single seat in the House of Commons.

For the avoidance of doubt, that is not a psephological forecast.

Fretting voters

To be absolutely clear, I am not solely carping about Labour. Or, indeed, carping at all.

Fretting voters, confronted by a canvasser, will raise issues that matter to them, regardless of constitutional precision.

Said voters will tend to be unimpressed if told by said canvassers that the issue in question is nothing to do with them.

A very senior Scottish politician once advised a Westminster constituent, whom he knew well, that "teeth are devolved", in response to an inquiry about dentistry.

It was a joke. Such jokes have a short life on the doorstep, when grumpy voters have had their televisual experience interrupted.

(Actually, that must be another problem confronting our gallant canvassers. In times gone by, they knew not to chap doors during a televised football game or EastEnders or Coronation Street. But now the footie and stirring tales of everyday folk are on the telly all the time).

Image copyright Getty Images

Back to constitutional nit-picking. It has long been a problem for Scottish hopefuls in a Westminster contest. The voters want to ask about education and the NHS. But those are devolved.

There are a number of ways around this conundrum - and all have been deployed in various forms today.

Firstly, one can link the issue to the election - as has been done via warnings that GPs from the European Union currently have an uncertain future under Brexit.

That is a genuine Westminster topic, particularly as it is the UK government which will seek approval for a deal which will include the treatment of EU citizens here and Brits abroad.

Secondly, one can talk about the broad economy within which devolved services are funded. Again, that is a direct Westminster responsibility and thus constitutionally pure.

Westminster clout

Thirdly, one can turn the topic into a question of credibility.

Thus, today, sundry parties who are in opposition at Holyrood have argued that the SNP's record in government (which they categorise as poor) suggests they are not to be trusted with enhanced or sustained clout at Westminster.

The SNP respond vigorously, arguing that they have a track record in standing up for Scotland: precisely the trait, they argue, which will be required in Westminster during the Brexit departure period.

PS Warm congratulations to the mighty United on their outstanding triumph at Cappielow in the first play-off contest. Simon Murray and Blair Spittal should be knighted, at least. More, please.

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