Thursday 8 June
For the first time, I failed to cast my vote at a general election. This was not because of a principled stance against the political classes (however justified that might have been) but because my day was taken up with a family crisis. At about 1.00pm, just as I was about to go to the polling station, I received a telephone call informing me that an elderly relative, with limited mobility, had been told that he must go to hospital for an urgent assessment. It was not a '999' case, so although an ambulance had been requested, there was some uncertainty about when it would arrive. I immediately went to my relative's house. He was naturally anxious about what might happen but had already packed some items in case he was kept in overnight.
The ambulance did not arrive until 5.30pm. I was impressed by the two paramedics who checked my relative's medical condition and printed off a report for receiving staff at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Glasgow. An initial assessment by nurses was carried out fairly quickly and a team administered various tests. We were then asked to wait in a corridor until a doctor was available. My relative was put in a wheelchair. He was in pain and started to become distressed. I explained this to a nurse and asked how long we might have to wait. By this time, it was about 8.00pm. It was evident that doctors were busy and I was in no position to judge the relative urgency of other patients. The nurse arranged for my relative to be put in a private bay with a bed and said he would be seen fairly soon. This was a repeated refrain for the next three hours, always in response to requests for information, never volunteered by staff.
By 11.00pm, he was angry and upset and prepared to abandon treatment: he simply wanted to go home. Fortunately, other family members had arrived and he was persuaded to wait. When a doctor finally turned up, and carried out a thorough examination, the results were encouraging. The distressing symptoms which had alarmed the GP were judged to have been caused by over-medication and my relative was allowed to go home. By the time we arrived there, early results from the election were being declared.
The episode is, I am sure, not at all exceptional: most people have had good and bad experiences of the NHS. In this case, during the long waiting period I think the nurses could have been more caring and attentive. They seemed to spend a lot of time chatting loudly and laughing among themselves, which might have upset some seriously unwell patients. And, not for the first time, I was struck by how many badly overweight nurses there are – hardly a positive image for a health profession.
Saturday 10 June
I finish reading 'Spymaster', a biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield, who was head of the secret intelligence service (MI6) from 1973 to 1978. The writer is his nephew, Martin Pearce, which immediately raises questions about the objectivity of the study, but it is evident that a great deal of thorough research has been undertaken. Moreover, the family connection has meant that Pearce had access to material not in the public domain. He is concerned to rescue Oldfield's reputation from the damaging stories about his sexuality that attracted the interest of the press, particularly following his short spell as security coordinator during the troubles in Northern Ireland. But his main purpose is to trace how someone who came from a modest farming background in Derbyshire could rise to such eminence and contribute so much to Britain's efforts during the cold war, particularly in the wake of the scandals associated with the traitors Burgess, Maclean and Philby.
As a fan of the actor Alec Guinness, I was intrigued to learn that he had asked to meet Oldfield when he was preparing for his role in the television production of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'. John le Carre took them both to lunch, during which Guinness carefully observed Oldfield's mannerisms and subsequently incorporated them into his wonderful performance as George Smiley.
Sunday 11 June
Nobody does revenge better than the Tory party. The former chancellor, George Osborne, now editor of the Evening Standard, clearly relished his moment on the Andrew Marr show when he said 'Theresa May is a dead woman walking – it's just how long she can remain on death row'. He managed to look both smug and creepy at the same time. Other former ministers, Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, joined in the vote of no confidence in May, suggesting that the removal vans would soon be outside 10 Downing Street. Party solidarity is temporarily suspended for a bout of blood-letting. In comparison, ferrets nipping each other in a sack seem cuddly and domesticated.
Monday 12 June
Local councils in Scotland like to claim that they are open, accountable and responsive to public representations. It would be more accurate to say that, far too often, they seem to operate as defensive bureaucracies rather than properly democratic organisations. Take the simple matter of trying to contact a council official responsible for a particular service. If you have internet access, you might think it would be a straightforward matter, since you would expect to find the information you need on the council's website. That would be optimistic. Rather than enabling access to the individual or department that you seek, you are encouraged to submit an email enquiry to some anonymous person: this keeps the enquirer at a distance and serves to insulate council staff.
If you wish to speak to someone on the telephone, there is likely to be a general 'helpline' which usually turns out to be less than helpful. There will be a recorded message offering a list of 'options' which may or may not meet your needs. One of these may lead to a second level of options 'for all other enquiries'. I recently went through this process only to hear tinny music and a 'reassuring' message that my call would be answered soon. It wasn't: after a while the line simply went dead. I had a vision of the call-centre people pulling the plug because it was time for a coffee break.
Contrast this with the information on the websites of most American cities. There you will find lists of named officials in the various departments, complete with direct-line telephone numbers. The assumption is that, as paid public employees, they should be easily accessible. Why shouldn't this system operate in Scotland? I know that such lists already exist for internal use by staff so it would not be a major operation to make them more widely available. Is there a fear that staff would be constantly bombarded with 'nuisance' calls? Calls to senior officials would presumably be fielded initially by secretaries or personal assistants. Any enquirer who started to be offensive or abusive could simply be cut off.
Scottish councils need to up their game in terms of public responsiveness. The services they provide are vitally important but council officials should not hide behind systems that make it difficult for members of the public to contact them directly. I will have an opportunity to raise the matter later this week when I am due to meet the new Scottish public services ombudsman, Rosemary Agnew.