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Medics for No spokesman: SNP claim on NHS budget threat is an astonishing fib

PROFESSOR Malcolm Macleod thought he'd left politics far behind when he switched to a full-time medical career 15 years ago.

Malcolm Macleod says the Scottish NHS is immune to the changes in England
Malcolm Macleod says the Scottish NHS is immune to the changes in England

But the referendum has a way of shaking up settled lives, and for Macleod, who holds a chair in neurology at Edinburgh University, it led to Better Together and a role as spokesman for the medics for No group, NHS Together.

"I'd rather it didn't take people like me to step aside from the day job to point out that politicians are telling porkies," he says, hunkered in his tiny, messy office on the campus of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

"Actually, I'd rather be doing something else."

Given his background and contacts, it's perhaps more surprising he didn't volunteer earlier.

In the mid-1990s, Macleod was in the thick of Scottish Labour politics. Rector of Edinburgh University, his hand-picked assessor (uni-speak for gopher) was one Douglas Alexander, now Shadow foreign secretary.

Macleod was also secretary of the Labour campaign for a Scottish Parliament, and was a potential candidate for the 1999 election.

But he crashed and burned in the Ochil selection and ended up in fifth place on a regional list. It was galling, but it was medicine's gain.

An honorary consultant neurologist in Forth Valley, helping patients with stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and epilepsy, Macleod, 48, is also now an internationally recognised research expert on stroke treatment.

What brought him back to the political realm was the Yes campaign's claim that the devolved Scottish NHS is threatened by a No vote, on the grounds that "cuts and privatisation" in the English NHS mean knock-on damage in Scotland.

It's basically an anti-Tory message that has got the Unionist campaign scared witless.

Macleod says it's also an "astonishing" fib.

"I've been surprised it's had any traction at all. It's a political statement with very little to justify it, made by people with a clear interest in frightening people to vote Yes."

NHS spending in England is rising, but Macleod says that even if it were falling Scotland's NHS would not suffer directly through the Barnett Formula, as Yes claim, as Barnett cash is not ring-fenced for the NHS, and Scotland could always raise more tax if it chose to do so.

"This is something that has to be nailed," he says.

"I don't have a problem with people wanting to be independent. What I do have a problem with is trying to persuade people into supporting that on the basis of a mistruth. Were Scotland to vote Yes on the basis of that mistruth that would be an error of historical proportions.

"And not just for Scotland but for the SNP.

"Because when the chickens come home to roost in five, 10 or 15 years' time, Alex Salmond isn't going to have a statue in George Square as the father of the nation. He's going to be reviled in history for actively misleading people."

Not all Yes supporters are culpable, though. He reckons some are merely "delusional".

"I'm reminded of Ally MacLeod," he goes on, referring to the Scotland football team manager in 1978 when half the country thought we'd win the World Cup. "There's a lovely, attractive optimism in the Scottish psyche. It's given us the confidence to travel to the furthest corners of the world.

"The other side of that, though, is that there are bits of it which can become delusional."

And not just delusional, immature too. "The tone of public discourse on independence in many places is vicious and juvenile.

"There's one reading that says we don't yet have the political or national maturity to even claim the right of acting as an independent country.

"Look at Twitter. This isn't a national debate, this is a national slagging match."

Getting back to health, what about Labour's warning in England about "forced privatisation"? He says there are problems with the Tory lust for having more private providers compete with NHS hospitals for patient care, but it doesn't affect Scotland, as it's all publicly funded.

"They've clearly got the balance wrong. There is a deeply pernicious involvement of private health companies involved in funding politicians down south of all colours, but particularly the Tory party. So the charge the Tory government are selling off the NHS to their pals in the private sector, I think that's a reasonable charge."

He also predicts the market model will lead to the distortions seen in the US and Australia, where in-demand specialists can make 10 times those in unglamorous roles, so doctors follow the money rather than finding their vocation.

"I think England is going that way," he says.

"But it would only manifest itself up here if the Scottish Parliament changed the rules.

"It's up to our politicians to protect us.

"We're always at the mercy of our politicians to do the right thing."

What's his prognosis for the campaign?

If it's a Yes, he says Salmond will be a short-lived nationalist hero "until people start realising what a bloody mistake it's been".

If a No, he's "utterly confident" Johann Lamont will be First Minister in 2016, as the voter mistrust created in the referendum sinks the SNP's plans at the Scottish election.

But like many in Better Together, he's confident there will be a No vote based on a consistent poll lead.

"It's not going to shift very much short of hell freezing over or Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling being found in bed with each other."

If that happened we'd all be rushing to see a doctor.

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