The silliest of seasons

It’s nearly August, traditionally the silly season for news. This year it looks like being not just silly but completely absurd.

I refer, of course, to Brexit.

I confess to being one of the many confused over what the precise situation is regarding our departure from the European Union. According to the latest YouGov opinion poll the proportion of people who think the Tories’ policy on Brexit is “very” or “fairly” clear has fallen from 26% in mid-June to 16% now, while the proportion who find it “fairly” or “completely” unclear has risen from 58% to 69%. Two-thirds of the country don’t know what’s going on – a dangerous position for any government, I’d hazard.

I would be totally lost without a handy online guide to check what’s going on – although as the guide says “nothing is ever certain, but as things stand Britain is leaving the European Union”, on 29 March 2019. That is just eight months away.

I worry that while Brexit is inevitably occupying centre-stage for the country’s politicians, other no less important matters are slipping down the agenda – and may disappear altogether the closer we get to 29 March.

The government has long promised a green paper on social care for older people, for example, and expectations were that this would be published before parliament’s summer recess. Publication has been delayed until the autumn – maybe.

Or take another huge issue which cries out for government attention – mental health. I read this weekend that in England prescriptions for antidepressants have doubled in a decade, at a cost of £235 million a year; more than 70,000 people under the age of 18 are now on antidepressants. Something is seriously wrong with our society if so many young people are in need of medical help to tackle their mental health issues – or if so many hard-pressed GPs don’t have time to discuss their problems and are writing prescriptions for them because it’s a faster way of getting them out of the surgery.

Maybe these large social issues are not something we can any longer expect government to deal with – perhaps they are too complex to understand, too expensive to remedy. While we stand mesmerised before Brexit like rabbits about to be run down by a juggernaut, other pressing matters run the risk of being ignored and shrugged off, the pieces being picked up by a Third Sector that valiantly struggles on.

John Swinney, Chair