This is why politicians lie, or how saving the NHS caused the Iraq war
Money should be 'no object' for NHS, says public
The public are particularly stupid when you take into account that they are the same public that told the Taxpayers Alliance that the second largest problem (after crime) facing the UK was excessive taxes.
Nothing is "regardless of cost". If your own mother needed life-saving treatment, you might say that you would pay up "regardless of cost", but you can afford to say that because you don't have the kind of money the government does. For most individuals, "regardless of cost" means "as long as it doesn't cost more than a few hundred thousand pounds", because if it cost a few million they wouldn't be able to afford it.
Even if we are only talking about a half-million pound treatment, how many of the following would you prepared to do to pay for your mother's treatment?
- Sell your house?
- Take your child out of university?
- Get your electricity cut off?
- Sell your kidneys?
For extra credit, what if the treatment only had a 10% chance of success?
If any of those answers are "no", then you wouldn't provide healthcare for your own mother regardless of cost. So why should the rest of us?
Actually, it gets worse than this. If their children's lives were at stake, most people would go through with some of the shocking money-raisers on my list. If their own lives were at stake, they would probably stop at selling the house. For an elderly parent, people spending their own money tend to give up on prolonging life relatively early and spend the money on palliative care instead. Do that in the NHS and you get hauled over the coals for age discrimination.
Nevertheless, 71% of the electorate think that the NHS should be funded regardless of cost. Because the NHS plays the same role in British politics as God does in American politics, this means that politicians have to pretend to believe it too, or else we get drummed out of office for atheism. But we can't actually believe it, because it is such a damnfool thing to believe.
Politicians in power have to make decisions about what the government will and won't pay for out of a limited budget - just like you do when Mum gets ill and the NHS won't pay for treatment. But we have to lie about it, because the voters make us. And if you have to lie to get ahead, then the profession of politics attracts talented liars - just like Tony Blair.
Tony Blair got where he is because he told the electorate lies about tax and spending in 1997. If he didn't have the lying skills to tell those lies with total sincerity while still being trusted as a "pretty straight kind of guy" then he wouldn't have been elected. If he was the sort of person whose mother had told him not to lie, he wouldn't have been able to do it. Successful politicians are people who are prepared to tell the electorate a little white lie, over and over again, with no visible signs of guilt. People who don't feel guilty about telling little white lies are going to start telling slightly bigger lies. If they are talented liars, they will get away with it. Eventually they will tell some real whoppers. Things like these:
- That Iraq had weapons of mass destruction
- That a major aim of the Iraq war was to bring democracy to the Iraqis
- That the Iraqis would appreciate this, and shower us with flowers
- That the Bush administration wasn't a bunch of clueless numpties
So how can we fight back as non-lying politicians? In the short term, we can't. What the electorate want, the electorate will get. And the electorate want someone who whispers sweet nothings about saving the NHS "regardless of cost" without actually raising taxes or spending any money. What they get is someone who can lie shamelessly, and it just so happens that the current liar-in-chief finds lying about weapons of mass destruction far more fun than lying about budgets.
In the long term, we can do two things. Firstly, challenge motherhood-and-apple-pie lies. When Gordon Brown gets up and says that he will provide free childcare for everyone, ask him how he is going to pay for it, and keep asking. When David Cameron says he can cut taxes without cutting services by getting rid of "waste and inefficiency", we should point and laugh. Then point out that our policies are fully costed and audited by the IFS, and the other parties' aren't. Unfortunately, this kind of negative-but-accurate campaigning is going to lower public trust in politics even further.
So we have to try and change how the electorate thinks. Most of the "white lies" politicians have to tell are to do with spending priorities. We need to treat questions about spending priorities as questions about priorities, and not about right and wrong, or who has religion and who doesn't. There isn't a fundamental right to government-funded healthcare - and there can't be, because that would imply a government duty to pay for it, and sometimes the government can't or shouldn't pay. Anyone who uses the language of fundamental rights when talking about spending priorities in the NHS is (a) lying, and (b) teaching the electorate to expect other politicians to lie. We also need to stop pretending that there are vast pools of untapped cash like "cutting waste and inefficiency" or "taxing the rich". Large, centralised organisations will always be wasteful and inefficient. If the rich are overtaxed, they won't bother getting rich.
The idea that decisions about priorities are just that is not difficult. Every family has to skimp on things that are important to them in order to be able to spend the money on something even more important. Unlike the other parties, Liberal Democrats can probably get away with saying so. The defining ideology of the Labour party is about spending priorities. The defining ideology of all successful centre-right parties is also based on financial priorities. The defining ideology of the Liberal Democrats is based around controlling power, and upholding real human rights. The right to free speech is not like the "right" to free healthcare. It exists (or should do) in the poorest societies just as much as the richest. Many people devoted their lives to the struggle for human rights. Others gave their lives in that struggle. That is what "regardless of cost" really means.
Labels: UK politics