My least favourite interviewer was at it again yesterday morning on the BBC’s Today programme. Mishal Husain was castigating again the much beleaguered Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Conservative Party HQ seems to be fielding him on a near daily basis. He deserves commendation for calmness under pressure – for his stalwart if misguided defence of the party’s nightmare commitment to the doomed National Health Service. It is a cross he alone seems to bear.
Saturday morning he was on to defend (yes defend) the Conservatives’ newish £8 billion pledge of extra spending to plug an emerging black hole in the NHS budget. Mishal had harried him on this point earlier in the week.
I really don’t know who is deciding the Tories’ reactive election strategy on this one but Mishal had a point – if Jeremy couldn’t commit to ‘funding’ the £8 billion shortfall three days ago how could he now?
Aren’t we in the realm of fantasy politics, she said. Indeed. In fact, it is the first sensible thing I have heard her say, ever. It is only sad that her scepticism does not appear to extend to Labour’s tick box mansion tax or some such other scenario for ‘funding’ their ‘upfront’ £2.5 billion extra to feed the ever voracious and never to be sated NHS baby.
The truth is that all these pledges and financial commitments through to 2020 are fantastical and the bribes of a fantasy election. Who knows what will have happened to interest rates by then – or to the pound for that matter?
The fantasy concept it worth dwelling on. I also heard it from James Bartholomew (author of The Welfare State We’re In) earlier this week at the launch of his latest book, The Welfare of Nations, at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
He asserted that what we are going through in the UK is a fantasy election – one marked by a complete absence of debate about the most fundamentally critical issues of our time, about which our political class is either supremely complacent or in denial. How right he is.
There is, he says, no mention of the UK’s mass illiteracy problem. Fifteen per cent of all British school leavers are functionally illiterate in this, the world’s fifth largest economy, with the 4th highest standard of living in the EU. Complacency about such problems is extraordinary.
Nor is time or place given to proper debate about health funding, despite our imploding and byzantine taxpayer and borrowing funded health system. There is no looking outwards to other countries with more effective health systems, like Singapore’s, which Bloomberg ranked as the most efficient in the world in 2014. It is based on a system of compulsory savings, subsidies, and price controls.
Our form of political democracy, Bartholomew said, locks the parties into competitive but meaningless bribes – particularly at election time. Who will promise more from the overburdened but under-performing State, whether these promises are realisable or not?
As Ryan Bourne of the IEA points out in his review of Bartholomew’s ‘tremendous new book’, what we have ended up with is not Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ capitalist, liberal democracies as the zenith of government but with the capitulation of an advanced economy to ‘welfare statism’, with quite disastrous outcomes for health and education.
Many other pleasant, advanced countries with welfare states are less religiously committed to these state monopolies. Most will have adopted one or another more efficient variant.
These also include overhauling means-tested benefits in favour of a social insurance model of welfare, with lower benefit rates and a flat tax to replace a system badly designed in principle and far too complex in practice.
But should we blame our political class for their inward-looking approach and their scrabbling over the meaningless minutiae of political debate? Are they to blame for their unwillingness to learn from elsewhere or is it our particular system of democracy that is responsible? That is what Bartholemew thinks. I am not so sure. I think the BBC monopoly – far more responsible for influencing and driving public opinion than the ever declining newspaper market – plays a huge part in this.
The BBC’s pressure to keep Britain’s intellectual life and political class parochial and state-solution oriented is relentless. And its favourite target is the Conservative Party, who they are constantly ’shaming’ into ‘cultural’ line.
Mr Cameron’s huge mistake was to buy into this game – one that he can never win – of being as good and as committed to the State as Labour. He needed to be be bold and field the necessary alternative. He did not do it last time and he is not, sadly, doing it this time.
Mishal’s accusation of fantasy politics, though true, is a bit rich in the circumstances. Not least because it was just another way of showing the Conservatives however hard they commit to Labour’s fantasy state solutions, they will never win.
Jeremy Hunt, who seems to be an intelligent man, surely must have pondered this as he returned from this, his latest in a long line of haranguing by the BBC.