Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The wrongs or rights of the BBC or NHS don't matter to the modern right - only that they cease to exist

In 1985, the then Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock took on militant - most notably in a now famous speech - and set in train a process of reforming the Labour Party that was taken, via John Smith, to its conclusion by Tony Blair. Although a good deal of the focus was on developing presentation and communication, the crucial change was that the party moved ideologically. In effect, it jettisoned the left-wing of the Party and became one of the political centre.

Blair's mantra, 'what matters is what works', did in fact demonstrate one of the key changes in the Labour Party - that would be no ideological objection to private involvement in public services as long as it improved them and supported the goal of greater provision for everyone. The only ideological barriers (theoretically), was where private sector involvement would be detrimental to social justice. 

However, in practice there was a flaw. New Labour, despite increasing spending in health and education, failed to take Blair's mantra to its logical conclusion. 'What matter is what works' should be a two way street. So, for example, on the high street, private competition tends to work very well for consumers, and therefore makes sense. But what about where it clearly does not? The privatised train system, for example, is more expensive and provides a poorer service than a number of state-run systems elsewhere in Europe. However it was (and remains) rarely suggested that such a service could move from a private to public system, even where clear failures are evident. In essence, then, the mantra provided a route for the privatisation of key public services but little else.

So what about the Conservative Party? The introduction of private enterprise into aspects of the public services enables the modern Tory Party to argue that a raft of their changes are merely building on the foundations laid by Labour. They argue that they are taking Blair's reforms forwards, in a similarly pragmatic manner. 

But there is a crucial difference between the Tory Party of 2012 and the Labour Party of 1997. Cameron never changed his party's economic policies. In fact, he never intended to. His 'reforms' were merely the first component of those seen under Blair's mid 90's Labour Party - concerned narrowly with presentation and communication. The second, ideological change, never occurred. In fact, if anything, the opposite did: centrist, one nation Conservatives like Michael Hesletine are now a minuscule part of a party dominated by neo-liberal, anti-European free marketeers. This is part of a trend that has been witnessed across the channel. As the left moved to the centre, the right has moved ever rightwards - or, as Bill Maher put it, 'moved into a mental institution'. 

The most important aspect of the modern right to bear in mind is therefore this - for them what works doesn't matter. Ideology trumps everything.

This is crucial in understanding Andrew Lansley's health reforms. It doesn't matter that the US health system he is trying to emulate has huge inequalities and is quite obviously unfair. Nor does it matter that the US system is hugely - cripplingly - expensive for both 'consumers' of the service and (ironically) for US taxpayers. It doesn't even matter that the NHS has been demonstrated to be more efficient than other developed world health systems.

Social justice, affordability - even efficiency - aren't important to modern right. The only key value system is one that revolves around the pursuit of profit - a notion that James Murdoch summed up neatly a few years ago. Expansion of private enterprise into all aspects of life - even those where its involvement may be detrimental to the lives of most citizens - is a goal that must, at all costs, be pursued. The state should never provide more than the bear minimum it needs to to avoid industrial and social strife - merely just enough to avoid riots on the streets.

Therefore arguments over whether the NHS serves cancer patients, or those with heart conditions, better than other health systems are ultimately unimportant. 

It is also why the BBC, despite the immense cultural benefits it brings to the UK, and the influence it allows a country as small as the UK to wield abroad, must be attacked. In this context, a commercial channel providing nothing but US imports and reality TV is always preferable to a non-profit provider of Frozen Planet and Birdsong, Thick of IT and Sherlock, Wonders of the Universe, Radio 4 and 6 Music.

The cultural icons the BBC has created, from Basil Fawlty to Alan Partridge, David Brent to Malcolm Tucker, are valueless in these terms. It doesn't even matter that a country the size of the UK could not hope to sustain a commercial channel with the means - let alone desire - to make anything like this range or quality of programming.

The truth is British culture doesn't actually matter to the modern neo-liberal right: nationalism is merely a fig leaf, a convenient veneer to give the impression that they hold values beyond their narrow economic goals (and. better still, to convince millions of people to effectively vote against their own interests).

It is in this context that the government operates and in this context that its actions should be understood. Any small gestures - on executive pay, or on energy bills - are just that; gestures to prevent public unrest... ideally just enough to ensure that the ideological project can continue unabated.  


  1. Giselle Williams3 February 2012 at 22:08

    Terrifying! I came here via the Guardian's article on the Royal College of GPs opposing Lansley's Health Bill.

    Will visit again!

  2. This article needs to be more widespread than just the Guardian, where a commentator's link took me here!

  3. Thanks Giselle - feel free to tweet and share!