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NHS Lothian should stop trying to atone for slavery and focus on cutting waiting times

In my latest Scotsman column, published on 17th October 2023, I cover the health board saying its tackling racial inequality and racism as a ‘a core part’ of what it does. I'm saying it should stick to providing a decent health service.

I recently discovered my great-grandfather was a horse thief. Thanks to some excellent family research by my cousin, this family skeleton was dragged from the cupboard.

The records of the Gloucester County Sessions from July 1879 are stark. My forebear William Wood, then 23, was found guilty of stealing a gelding, a serious offence at a time when the horse was king. William did some gaol time but the shortness of his sentence made me wonder if there were some mitigating circumstance. The other story about William, passed down in family folklore, was that he was very fond of his own homemade scrumpy cider. I suspect there may be a connection.

But what am I to do about this family guilt? Are my generation tainted, have I benefitted from ancient proceeds of crime? Well perhaps. I have inherited a lovely 17th-century, long-case clock passed down through that side of the family. Should I try to make recompense, apologise to all and sundry, or make a donation to a horse welfare charity?

No, of course not, it’s nonsense. We cannot be held responsible for the sins of our fathers, let alone our great-grandfathers. You cannot apologise for something that happened decades before you were born, and any attempt to do so is surely a vacuous waste of time.

But apparently not everyone shares that view. Instead of concentrating on present problems, it seems many academic and public bodies are spending their time and our money trying to atone for ancient wrongs.

The latest public body to get on bended knee is Lothian health board, which intends to launch a programme of reparations to make amends for its 18th-century links with slavery. Since health boards only came into being 20 years ago, this may seem bewildering but apparently it’s because the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was partly funded by monies from a Caribbean slave plantation.

Back then hospitals were largely sponsored by charitable donations, and since commerce was intertwined with the slave trade, it’s hardly surprising that some wealthy benefactors were tainted. But does that really mean a 21st-century public body should accept blame 200 years later? If so, how long does this concept of original sin carry on?

Will our ancestors be forced to apologise for us, whose lives have been made comfortable by the coal-powered Industrial Revolution? Where does it end? I have a Swedish friend of Viking stock, perhaps I should try to put the squeeze on him!

For its part, Lothian health board seems determined. Its chief executive stated that “tackling racial inequality and racism” was “a core part of what NHS Lothian does”. This came as a surprise, I thought it was a publicly funded body tasked with delivering an efficient health service. It’s not as if there’s not a job to do.

History is a rough place, if not it would be a fairy story. Our public bodies should put aside their hair shirts and deal with the problems of today and the foreseeable future. The modern fashion of trying to atone for historic misdeeds is a self-indulgent waste of time. If Lothian health board’s chief executive wants to make a difference, how about reducing waiting times or even getting my GPs’ surgery to answer their phone?

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