The other day, I visited a friend in hospital. Not in Scotland but in my former homeland of Bavaria. From the parking area, I walked through a beautifully landscaped park with large trees and paths that stretched down to a lake. In the distance, I saw the mountains. The entrance hall reminded me of a five-star Radisson hotel. There were more trees, also a jeweller’s shop and a glass-fronted cafeteria with grand landscape views. My friend stayed in a single room. After an initial three week hospitalisation, a triple bypass and heart valve surgery in a heart centre, he spent an additional three weeks for recuperation here.
Compare this to my wife’s hospital stay last year in Raigmore hospital in Inverness. She had severe sepsis. After three days in the high dependency unit, she was transferred to an ordinary ward. She shared a room with five other women. Privacy was restricted to short moments behind the famous NHS curtains. One night, an elderly lady climbed out of bed and fell into my wife’s intravenous pump, dislodging all the tubes. Screaming patients disrupted any semblance of sleep. It was pure bedlam. There was just one toilet. It was cleaned once a day. When my wife was able to go to the loo, the floor was littered with soiled incontinence pads.
After being discharged, she was still hardly able to walk. Things like a REHA are alien to our NHS, allegedly ‘the envy of the world’, in particular in the unreformed 1970s stasis in which it is stuck in Scotland.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the amazing clinic where my friend stayed is a preserve for the privileged few. It is, indeed, owned by a pension insurance fund, but everybody has access. It is standard. My friend belongs to that group of society that elsewhere is supposed to be ‘angry’, that voted for independence in Scotland and for Brexit in England, that elected Trump in the United States and supports far-right parties in other parts of Germany.
His start in life was anything but promising. In 1947, his family was expelled from Czechoslovakia. The family arrived in the west with nothing. He left school at the age of 14, served an apprenticeship and worked as a blacksmith, lived modestly, built his own house and spent his spare time keeping bees. He had to retire early because of leukaemia. His wife still earns some extra cash as a cleaner. The SNP prattles about social equality. In Bavaria, it is reality.
Bavaria is a kind of German Scotland. For most of its history, it was at odds with the rest of the country. In 1866, it fought a last battle against Prussia. Hundreds died. It spelled the end of Bavarian independence. Until the 1950s, it used to be the poor cousin of the prosperous north. Northerners sneered at Bavaria as ‘the first country on the Balkan’. Like Scotland, it is mostly rural and has many – as the jargon goes – ‘structurally disadvantaged areas’.
But instead of indulging in the past and getting sentimental about being a ‘Free State’ – the term is still part of its official name – it has embraced devolution to its fullest advantage. In the 1950s, the separatist Bayernpartei (BP) still gained one-fifth of Bavarian votes and 17 seats in the German parliament. Today, the SNP’s sister party in the European Free Alliance is down to 1% of the popular vote. A man who came himself from a family of separatist monarchists knocked the stuffing out of them. If you fly into Munich airport you may have heard of him – the airport is named after him.
Franz Josef Strauss was a kind of Bavarian Donald Trump, beloved by his people and despised by the self-righteous adherents of the post-war north German left-liberal consensus. Since 1953 he staged an annual ‘political Ash Wednesday’ where often for hours he badmouthed northerners, the media and the establishment, liberally swigging beer and never dropping his heavy Bavarian accent in favour of standard German. His Christian Social Union (CSU) won nearly every regional election with an absolute majority: 1978 was their high point with 62%.
Strauss’ legacy lives on to this day. He gained such power in the German political system that no conservative-led government could govern without the CSU’s say-so. He exploited his power unashamedly for the advantage of Bavaria. But his ultimate allegiance was always to Germany, Europe and NATO.
Bavaria’s political consensus sits well to the right of Angela Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union). The emphasis is on personal responsibility. The insurance-based social security and health system, whereby benefits reflect contributions, is valid all over Germany. But the contribution level depends largely on income, and therefore on high employment. High employment depends on a top-notch education system.
Education is at the heart of devolution in Germany. In Bavaria, it has a curious history. The Nazis had introduced comprehensive schooling. After the war, the occupying forces largely sanctioned it. In Bavaria, the CSU’s co-founder, Alois Hundhammer, undermined their efforts. He was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, but had also been a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Nazi. He had spent time in KZ Dachau. That gave him political leeway. As Bavaria’s first post-war education minister, he reintroduced the old selective system.
As a nine-year-old, I had to sit a three-day exam to enter a grammar school that taught me Greek and Latin (and some other subjects). Others went to modern language or science based schools. Others again left foundation school only at the age of 12 to go to a commerce orientated ‘middle school’. Many stayed on until they were 14 to start an apprenticeship - mostly of an extraordinary quality. Someone who has served his time with some of Bavaria’s top companies such as BMW or Audi is probably as well qualified as an engineer leaving a Scottish university.
From each of these pathways, it is possible to go to university if one is inclined to do so. There are two strands to modern Bavaria’s economic success – this highly diversified education system and the political stability associated with the CSU’s dominance. It resulted in the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe at a negligible 2.8%. In other parts of Germany, it is nearer 10%.
Scotland has a cabinet secretary ‘for Fair Work’ and a youth unemployment rate over 14%. In the CSU, the SNP’s way of running a regional government finds little, if any, support. No surprise then that the party’s deputy leader Angus Robertson followed his old penchant for lost causes during a recent visit to Bavaria. He joined a convention of the Social Democrats who gained just 20% of the Bavarian vote in the last provincial elections where he and his hosts waxed lyrical about ‘standing shoulder to shoulder for Europe’.
Perhaps he should have visited a Bavarian hospital instead to get a glimpse of social justice and equality in action. Perhaps that would have given him some ideas of how a devolved government can use its power for the benefit of the people. If that was ever the SNP’s intention.
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