Around the millennium I took a sabbatical from the world of medicine, buried myself away in a croft on the Isle of Skye, and wrote a book (or at least, put a series of black marks on paper). Then my mother’s cousin broke her leg. She was the front seat passenger in a car which suddenly decided to traverse Somerled Square and crash into the Portree Hotel. I visited her in Broadford Hospital, where the medical director said to me, “You’re the doc who’s holed up in Camustianavaig writing a book. Do you want a job?” I have no idea how he knew where I was. Anyway I did a locum.
Then the 2001 general election came along and the local MP, Charles Kennedy, dropped into the hospital with his (then) wife Sarah. They were both very nice. Mr Kennedy had a self-deprecatory sense of humour and was entirely lacking in pretence. We had a very easy conversation. I think the reason why the news of his death has caused such genuine sorrow is that he had a warm personality and an ability to connect with people. I for one felt a sharp pang of dismay when I first heard the news last Tuesday morning. I was reminded of the sudden death of another Scottish politician, Robin Cook, who collapsed and died in August 2005 while walking on Ben Stack, in Sutherland. Mr Kennedy and Mr Cook both opposed the 2003 Iraq war, a stance which was, amid the prevailing attitudes of the time, courageous. Robin Cook’s memoire of the run-up to the war, The Point of Departure, ends with his House of Commons speech of resignation from the government. It is very compelling. This also reminds me of Mr Kennedy, when he was leader of the Liberal Democrats, arguing in the House that he was not persuaded of the justification to go to war. A background to his speech was the inane hubbub coming from the opposite benches.
Mr Kennedy’s ability to connect also reminded me of New Zealand. In an Auckland emergency department one night I looked after a government minister who came in with an acute medical problem. We were so busy that at one point I had to wheel his trolley out into the corridor (sounds familiar?) to free up a resuscitation room. I was apologetic but he just wanted to be treated like everybody else. (Incidentally we sorted the overcrowding issue out; it took a decade, but that’s another story.) I was reminded of this Kiwi egalitarianism when in February this year the British Government appointed a New Zealand judge, Justice Lowell Goddard, to lead the independent enquiry into child sexual abuse in England and Wales. She was the third appointee; Baroness Butler-Sloss and then Fiona Woolf had taken on the task only to withdraw, because it was felt they were both too close to the Establishment they were being asked to investigate. Justice Goddard, on her arrival in the UK, was asked if she might not also have links with the British Establishment. She replied that she had had to check out what British people meant by “establishment”. She said, “We don’t have such a thing in my country.”
I think she’s right. That is not to say that there isn’t a degree of class consciousness in New Zealand. Most of it comes as a legacy from Great Britain. A posh New Zealand accent is a kind of approximation of BBC RP, although it is beginning to sound very old fashioned. I have dined in Auckland restaurants when I’ve seen New Zealanders cringe to hear the waitress (sorry, I believe the current idiom is “wait-person”) announce, “The fush of the dee ees sneepah.” And, later, “Would yous like to see the dessert menu?” (The latter made me feel right at home.)
Yet I think the real reason why New Zealand doesn’t have an establishment is that it has unicameral government. The upper chamber was abolished in 1950. They decided they didn’t need it.
Back here, after this year’s general election there was the state opening of parliament with the arrival of the Queen in a gold horse-drawn carriage, the usual Black Rod flummery and the MPs filing in pairs through to join the ermine in the Lords, before the thrones, the page boys, the ladies in waiting. This is the fundamental problem with the UK – the complete disconnect between the establishment and the commonweal. I think most people living in the UK look at this spectacle and conclude that they have nothing to do with it, and it has nothing to do with them.
Of all the anecdotes I’ve heard about Charles Kennedy over the past week, the one I liked best concerned an elderly pensioner who came to see him in his constituency surgery. She had been complaining to the council for years about a dripping tap in her kitchen, and nobody was bothering. Mr Kennedy said, “I will fix it.” He took along his tools and replaced a washer.
Actually I’m a bit worried about our Lords and commoners. They don’t have enough room. For the Queen’s speech they’re packed in like sardines. Any time I go to a medical conference one of the first house-keeping notices in the plenary session is to go over the fire drill and indicate the location of the fire exits. Do they ever have fire drills in the Lords? Remember, it’s still legal to smoke in parts of the Palace of Westminster, and the glorious interiors are made of wood. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.