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“Scotland under Sturgeon has not been well run. Its devolved NHS oversees some of western Europe’s worst mortality rates” – Simon Jenkins, Guardian website, 10 April 2023


Jenkins seems wilfully to ignore the fact that mortality rates are rising – and rising faster in England than in Scotland – as a result of Westminster’s austerity policies, not those of the Scottish overnment.

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Sir Simon Jenkins is a former editor of The Times and London Evening Standard.  He is known for his passion regarding English architecture and culture and is a former deputy chair of English Heritage and a former chair of the English National Trust.

In 2022 he published a book entitled The Celts: A Sceptical History which rejects the historical existence of a traditional, original Celtic culture and thus (in his opinion) undermines the case for a Scottish, Irish or Welsh national identity.

In his regular Guardian column of April 10, Jenkins launched a major attack on the record of the Sturgeon government and on Scotland’s alleged inability to survive without subsidy from the British Treasury. He claimed: “Scotland under Sturgeon has not been well run. Its devolved NHS oversees some of western Europe’s worst mortality rates. Its drug death rate is the highest in Europe. School performance has lagged behind England in key subjects. Once lovely landscapes have been scarred by subsidised wind turbines. Scotland’s dependence on Treasury cash from London is acute."

The National:


We need to distinguish between average life expectancy and mortality (the proportion of deaths in the population). 

Jenkins refers to the mortality rate, normally measured by deaths per 100,000. At a regional level, this figure is adjusted for differences in age and gender. Mortality rates in Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) have traditionally been higher that for England. 

This gap goes back to the 1980s and so predates devolution. Given the differences in devolved administrations (not to mention the repeated returns to direct rule from Westminster over Northern Ireland) it is clear that the different mortality rates are not the result of specific policies in the devolved administrations but in the differences in local wealth and life chances.

The National:

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However, there is a major caveat that Jenkins fails to mention. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has recently published fresh data on mortality rates and life expectancy in the UK based on the recent 2021 census. It reports: “After decades of steady improvements, increases in life expectancy in the UK in recent years have visibly slowed … At the country level, England and Wales have seen a greater slowdown in overall mortality improvements for males compared with Northern Ireland and Scotland.”

In other words, the most recent trend – including the period from 2014 till 2023 when Nicol Sturgeon was FM – shows life expectancy is declining and therefore mortality rates are rising (pre-Covid) across the UK, with England showing the worst results. A look at other ONS figures shows life expectancy falling faster in the English North and Midlands than in Scotland. Why are people dying at an earlier age, especially in the poorer parts of England, and so mortality rates in the UK population rising? The answer is austerity, according to a study by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) published last year.

The GCPH (a partnership between Glasgow University, the NHS and local authorities) presented research that identified 335,000 excess deaths across the UK between 2012 and 2019, as a direct result of UK government austerity policies reducing income and amenities. The GCPH report also found that in the 20% most deprived population in Scotland in this period, rates of premature death rose by 6-7 percentage points after earlier decreases of 10-20 points.

The co-author of the GCPH paper, Prof Gerry McCartney, Professor of Wellbeing Economy at the University of Glasgow, noted: “As the UK Government debates current and future economic direction, it needs to understand, and learn from, the devastating effects that cuts to social security and vital services have had on the health of the population across the whole of the UK. The Scottish Government must also do everything it can within its devolved powers to mitigate the effects of these UK Government policies and help protect people from the disastrous consequences.”

Jenkins ignores this evidence. He also ignores the fact that declining life expectancy and rising mortality rates are an international phenomenon and concentrated in those industrial countries which implemented austerity policies the hardest. Life expectancy in the US has fallen its lowest level since 1996.


Sir Simon’s preference for blaming Scotland and the Scottish Government for the sins of others extends to his claim that Scotland is too dependent on Westminster subsidies to go it alone. In fact, the latest data shows that it is the Tory government that has driven the UK into debt since 2010. On the Wednesday after Jenkins's column appeared, the International Monetary Fund Fiscal Monitor reported that the international watchdog expected overall UK national debt to rise by fully 10% over the next five years. The IMF forecasts that UK public debt will rise from 103% of GDP in 2022 to 113% by 2028.  In fact, the Tories have doubled the total amount of the national debt since they were elected in 2010.


The National:

Sir Simon may get one point for recognising there’s something wrong with mortality rates in Scotland. It is a problem. But he ignores the real culprit – Westminster austerity.