The MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Neale Hanvey (unseated a Labour MP), is an unusual politician in that he has thought about honesty in his profession and not decided it inefficient, inconvenient, cumbersome, and junked it.
Having a naturally open and trusting personality, he encountered the rage of the Internet mob not so long ago. When an SNP member at Westminster, he was suspended from the party following over-wrought mob allegations that he made an anti-Semitic social media posts years earlier. He compared Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to the treatment of Jews during the Second World War. This is a comment akin to that made by eminent Jewish academics, activists such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. Unwittingly, the tweet shared a newspaper article that included a cartoon image of the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist, George Soros.
I have met and talked to George Soros. He is of Jewish decent but does not regard himself as one. In fact, he has attacked Israel for its inhumane policies inflicted on Palestinians. Right-wing Jews detest him. Sometimes, untruths can get ugly.
Readers should keep in mind some lies are justied. If huntsmen stopped to ask me which way a fox had run, I would point in the direction opposite to that it had taken. We lie many times a day in order not to hurt people’s feelings. We lie to ourselves to avoid facing reality. Here, Neale Hanvey discusses honesty as he practices it, in a politician’s day, and when he was a cancer nurse, where truth meets diplomacy and party loyalty.
A POLICY OF TRUTH
At the recent ALBA conference, I recalled when I was a child I was fascinated by nodding dogs on the back shelves of cars in front. Their indication of agreement or dissent completely dictated by the actions of the driver and the surface of the road on which they travelled.
No need to think, just nod along.
It was a fine amusement for a child, but surely we should we expect more from our politicians than to just nod along to whatever diktat is issued from on high – I certainly think so.
In my professional career fudging the truth was never an option. However uncomfortable the news being delivered was, answering tough questions required a level of honesty that was simply unavoidable. It was necessary because my patients (when a nurse) and their loved ones needed that honesty to make informed decisions and to prepare themselves for their all to uncertain futures.
As a consequence I recognise that some folk might consider me to be overly forthright and out-spoken, but for me being direct about issues that affect all our lives and futures is as fundamental to being an effective elected representative as is having the courage of my convictions and the confidence to match words with deeds.
So, while I may have made some decisions or said some things that some consider off-message it comes down to these basic questions – What do you want from your politicians? Do want me to be straight with you, or would you rather be kept in the dark and placated with warm words to sooth?
These are fundamental questions, and surely the only sensible answer is “of course I want the truth”. But from the sexed-up case for the Iraq war to the currently misplaced confidence invested in aspects of Covid strategy, we know the implications of fudging the truth on geopolitical stability down through the ages, and we can see how it distorts our understanding and our response to the pandemic.
Telling people the truth is not always easy, indeed it can be incredibly hard, yet it is almost always necessary.
Life before politics
In my life before politics, I had a successful career in cancer nursing. Originally training as a mental health nurse, following further study I took that experience into the world of cancer care. My clinical specialty was in adolescent services, principally dealing with blood cancer and bone tumours. Further to this I led cancer services at University College London Hospitals as Senior Nurse, and latterly was Nurse Director for the Rare Cancer Division at the internationally esteemed Royal Marsden Hospitals. All this experience is invaluable to my practice in politics and that rich life experience and expert knowledge is the lens through which I assess the ethics, humanity and justness of policy and legislation.
As a cancer nurse there have been many times in my life where telling patients and their loved ones the truth was unbelievably tough, yet it was a necessary part of the job. This was no more so apparent than during my years as Charge Nurse on University College London Hospitals’ Teenage Cancer Trust Unit.
The diagnosis of cancer during adolescence is thankfully a rare thing, but when such a diagnosis is made it is devastating. It’s like a bomb has gone off in family life, where nothing makes sense anymore and everyone around the young person is completely disorientated. In my mind’s eye I can still see the lift doors open to reveal the shellshocked faces of young people and their parents struggling to comprehend their unwelcome new reality.
There was no such thing as a routine admission. Some young people had been reasonably well prepared by the referring clinical team, but others arrived wondering why they’d been sent to a cancer unit. While the confirmation and delivery of any cancer diagnosis is a deeply significant moment, it happens in a surreal context where the disintegration of a world previously taken for granted is unique to everyone.
However, what was routine and fundamental across the multi-disciplinary team was a determination to provide confident, expert clinical practice, emotional support, information, honesty, and teamwork. In the first few days and weeks much of the information provided must be repeated as the young person and their family slowly adjust to the diagnosis, learn a new language of blood results, types of scans and tests.
In short, the team around the young person and their family must be the strength to bare their pain. Simultaneously there is a need to ensure they develop their own understanding, so they have confidence in the decisions they begin to make about their future treatment and care.
Although it may be first in the chain, breaking the news of a diagnosis of cancer is by no means the only tough conversation to be had, and not every tough conversation is necessarily ‘bad news’.
Loss of functions
The effective treatment of many types of cancer in young people can result in the reduction or complete loss of fertility. Explaining this to parents and young people can be just as devastating as the original diagnosis as they are confronted with a further significant loss, but there is also a need to talk about techniques to preserve fertility.
Females must consider fertility treatment and the freezing of unfertilised eggs or ovarian tissue. However, for males, the process for obtaining a sample is, well, more rudimentary. As this realisation dawns on the young men and their parents the levels of discomfort can go off the chart.
It’s often the dads who really struggle. They think it is somehow something they should know how to take care of, but they also know that this is not a ‘father-son’ conversation anyone prepares for. When they are reassured that this is a conversation I or one of my colleagues would have the release of pressure is palpable.
Of course, conversations don’t come tougher than when treatment hasn’t gone as hoped and it’s time to prepare for the worst. It’s a bit like the original diagnosis where there is a big event with the consultant and core team members, but it’s all the conversations that follow where much of the hard work is done. Where those uniformly wonderful young people I knew confronted their end-of-life choices with a maturity that still humbles me to this day.
Throughout all my days on the Teenage Unit the culture was imbued with compassionate, yet frank honesty and the importance and value of that culture lives in my memory.
I know that people have an enormous capacity to deal with the truth, however hard. To make good decisions they need and deserve to have the facts or an honest appraisal of the possible options before them. There is no value in sugar-coating tough information, or pretending everything is fine, it does not change reality. In fact, it disempowers us adding to a disorientation where hope and belief lose all sense of perspective and where bad or reckless decisions can and will be made.
Bringing that, and my subsequent NHS leadership experience into politics has not been without its risks. While I believe in being frank and truthful, it can be perceived or portrayed as being disloyal or harsh, but just like cancer care politics effects real people’s lives, it demands an ability to deal with hard truths. And while I am not one to keep concerns to myself, it can be very frustrating when I find myself unable to provide the softer explorative and supportive work required to help someone adjust to sometimes uncomfortable realities.
This can be particularly tough on social media like Twitter, where one person’s brutal truth is another’s necessary information, but the message is often lost because most people are opinionated (like me) and have a strong political position (me also).
However, the exchange of information, facts and ideas needs somewhere to be explored, considered, and debated. While I do not have a solution to hubris and hyperbole, I do know that I can’t and won’t sit on my hands or shut my mouth when I see injustice, malfeasance, or mendacity.
Nature and nurture
We are all products of our life experiences, and our history of learning informs our future behaviour and choices. I am enormously privileged to serve the cause of independence as an ALBA party MP and I take my responsibility to speak up and speak out seriously. I know as well as anyone that the messages I give can be hard to hear and sometimes unwelcome, but for independence to be realised we must resolve to have sufficient collective honesty to deal with every obstacle placed in our way.
As a movement we share a common purpose. However, to have confidence in the Scotland we collectively seek to build, we must be sufficiently secure to accommodate honest and forthright debate. It is only through such a policy of truth, industry and trust that we will truly become a nation again.
James Neale Hanvey (born 28 December 1964) is an Alba Party politician who has served as Member of Parliament (MP) for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath since 2019. Formerly a member of the Scottish National Party (SNP), he left the SNP to join the Alba Party in March 2021. He was the SNP member and spokesperson for the Health and Social Care Select Committee and he was briefly Shadow Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment. Born in Belfast, Hanvey was the son of James Stafford Hanvey and Mary Isobel (Ismay) Hanvey (née Withers). He was educated at Glenrothes High School before starting a twenty-five year career in the National Health Service. In 2005, he was appointed as divisional nurse director for rare cancer at the Royal Marsden Hospital. He has been a contributing author to medical textbooks.
Neale Hanvey MP has written to senior parliamentarians at Westminster calling for a “united front” to defeat the proposed draconian powers to limit the right to peaceful demonstrations and protest at the Scottish Parliament. He has written to former Conservative Cabinet Minister David Davies MP, SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford MP, Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray MP and Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and Spokesperson for Scotland Wendy Chamberlain MP. This follows the request from the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) to the Home Office for the power to remove protestors under threat of criminal prosecution from the Scottish Parliamentary Estate. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Designated Scottish Sites under Section 129) Order 2021 (SI 2021, No. 1021) will come into force on1 October, unless it is annulled.