Monday, March 08, 2010

Stands Scotland where it did?

Returning to the snows of Tallinn I have been reflecting on the state of Scotland. Spending time in Perth has been a slightly sobering experience- and not just because I have given up drink for Lent.

Perth is one of Scotland's wealthiest towns. It has a rich history and a fine number of interesting and ancient buildings. Attractively situated on the banks of the river Tay, its architecture is almost a visual representation of the Scottish virtues of strength, solidity and planning for the longer term. The wonderful Victorian railway station- stone built- was once a place where you could get to the rest of the country in speedy comfort. The public buildings of the Victorian age reflect a civic pride and a confidence in the future. Looking from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, I detect little of that confidence. The rail infrastructure is slow and decrepit- with even a fast train to Edinburgh taking twice the time of the 50 minute car journey. Once a great trading and market centre for the south Highlands and the political centre of the early Kingdom of Scotland, the city became a white collar administrative centre in the twentieth century. Yet while the headquarters of Scottish & Southern Energy remain in the area, Aviva and HBOS are now shedding jobs and the once thriving whisky business is gone entirely. Meanwhile the former wealth of the agricultural sector is much diminished.

Perth was a place with a rather sporty reputation, particularly for Rugby, where the local public school, Glenalmond, fostered a fine reputation for good players, including the great David Sole, captain of the 1990 Grand Slam winning Scotland side. Yet now the majority of the pedestrians on the street were wan and several were quite remarkably fat. Cicero- being no "Slimcea girl" himself- is not usually censorious about weight, but the scale of morbid obesity on display I find utterly shocking. Young women in particular seem to be quite astonishingly overweight: many are clearly over 100 kilograms, and some I guess may be touching 160Kg-getting close to twice my own weight. It is horrifying seeing so many displaying an utter indifference to their own health, still less their appearance. Sure enough I see the tell tale signs of heart disease- slow gait and breathlessness- even amongst some who are probably not yet thirty. A more hidden epidemic of diabetes and cancer must be under way. In the newspaper, I see pictures of Alex Salmond, and he too seems to have put on an extraordinary amount of fat. A Lib Dem colleague remarks that "Salmond really seems to have pulled the ripcord!", and indeed his buttery features seem to sum up what I see in Perth.

And Perth is a wealthy place- or at least in used to be- and the propensity to be overweight relates to poverty in Scotland, so if Perth faces a health crisis, I shudder to think what Niddrie in Edinburgh or Castlemilk in Glasgow must look like. Booze and bad diet- and continued smoking- is killing Scots, but even worse it is making their shortened lives ones of sickness and discomfort. This is not the recipe for a fulfilled life, and it also has profound economic implications.

Scotland is isolated from the centre of the European market, and the infrastructure- both physical and electronic- is not keeping pace with the rest of Europe. Once Perth station was an ultra-modern transport link point, now it is symbolic of decay. The lack of investment -in hotels (all to obvious where I was staying), in roads, rail and high speed broadband- is eroding the competitiveness of the Scottish economy very rapidly. Watching the number of obviously unhealthy people on the streets really makes me fear for the future.

Even if the infrastructure gaps could be filled, is there anything for investors to come to Scotland for? What happened to turn the thrifty, hard working, thrawn Scots into an open air coronary care unit? The independentistas say that it is because of the "dependency" that the lack of independence has created in the minds of modern Scots, but looking at the blimp-like form of the First Minister, that has got to be garbage. Yet there may be something in the idea of a lack of control or sense of responsibility in ones own life. It is hard not to look at the morbidly obese and wonder what made them that way- and it is a question of mind as much as of body. If mens sana in corpore sano -a healthy mind in a healthy body- has any truth in it, then Scotland is very sick indeed. If the physical health of its citizens is any guide, then the political and moral health of the country must be crumbling too. Certainly the fall of Stephen Purcell, the moon faced leader of Glasgow Council, as the result -we are told- of a some kind of breakdown might not have happened had be been physically healthy.

As I boarded the flight from Copenhagen to Tallinn last night, I was once again above the average BMI of the passengers on the plane; I resolve to continue my Lent diet. I am quite shaken by what I see at home. Reading in a newspaper I hear of a man in Essex who was over 440Kg and needed to be rescued from his house by the fire brigade when he was taken ill. So it is obviously not just Scotland where this sickness is taking place- even if it seemed more obvious in a smaller town like Perth. Nevertheless, seeing women who were probably once very attractive but who are now drowning in lard is horrible.

In the end, people have to decide for themselves and make their own lifestyle choices- and in the USA, obesity is now falling as a result. Scotland, though, does not seem to be turning away from the health catastrophe that we face. In the end it is a matter for the individual, since politicians can only promote and campaign for healthy individual choices- not make them.

In the final analysis, it is up to the individual to make the right personal choices for themselves: and that is the root of all morality and most politics. Perhaps the root of the obesity crisis is that people are not taking responsibility for their own decisions about their health. That does have moral implications, and it profoundly changes politics too.

Personally I think Liberals should talk about personal responsibility more often, it is after all the corollary of the greater personal freedom of choice that we believe is necessary in our society. Freedom without responsibility certainly seems the recipe for an uncomfortable, sick and short life.

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