Skip to main content

That disused off licence in the parade? I'm turning it into a hospital.

One of things I’ve always observed about evangelists for the free market is that few of them like to take their case to its logical conclusion. If they did, they would see their arguments quickly collapse under the weight of their own incoherence. Think of a robot in a cheap sci-fi movie overwhelmed with conflicting data and starting to smoke.

Let’s take the Con-Dem plans announced last week for the creation of ‘free schools’, for instance. The principle of the scheme – modelled on similar ideas in the USA and Scandinavia – is to allow pretty much anyone to set up an educational establishment. Ideologically, the premise is that the state should no longer have a monopoly on schooling or curriculum and that unpopular schools should be allowed to go to the wall.

I’m not going to get into the technicalities of whether all this can be made to work on the ground, but I do have a question. If anyone can run a school, why can’t they run a hospital?

Before you laugh and tell me that hospitals are completely different, it’s worth remembering that the Con-Dems don’t actually make it a requirement for people running ‘free’ schools to have any knowledge of education. It’s accepted that they can be a bunch of well-meaning do-gooders who buy in expertise from teaching staff and educational administrators. In fact, I don’t see any fundamental obstacle to a group of functionally illiterate yokels setting up a school that teaches barn dancing, provided they employ someone who can fill in a form for them.

So surely I can run a hospital? I may not be medically qualified myself , but I know people who are. There’s a disused warehouse a couple of miles away that would make an excellent outpatients’ clinic. I won’t follow any nationally agreed guidelines on how to treat people, but if someone wants to roll up, that’s their choice, isn’t it?

Let’s take things a stage further. What if I lived in an area where there was dissatisfaction with the standard of policing? Why should the state have a stifling level of control over the justice system? I could get together with a group of concerned residents and establish my own security force. If neighbours wanted to withhold the portion of their taxes that went to the local police authority, they could donate it to me instead. I’d give them a card – a little like membership of the AA or RAC – that would allow them to call me any time they liked.

Of course, I’m being a bit mischievous with all this. But truly free markets are an absurdity and people who advocate them are rarely guided by any coherent principles. If they were true to their intellectual logic, they would propose opening up the markets for prostitution, drugs and firearms. (In the loony days of Margaret Thatcher, there were a few libertarian splinter groups – the Federation of Conservative Students, for example – which did indeed advocate some of these positions, but they had to be disowned. Even the Iron Lady realised that pure market ideology would produce unacceptable social consequences.)

The reason we gradually established and entrenched state education in the UK is because ‘free’ schools founded by philanthropists, religious zealots and busy-bodies were hopelessly inadequate. Prior to the 1870 Education Act, large areas of the country simply didn’t have any proper educational provision at all. Those parliamentarians who didn’t much care for the moral arguments in favour of educating the working classes were persuaded by the functional economic need: Britain’s manufacturing base needed more people who could read, write and add up.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, there was huge opposition to the establishment of a national police force because it was thought to be a tyrannical instrument of state oppression. The kind of thing that Johnny Foreigner would do. It was only when the inadequacies of the old night watchmen began to be exposed – and crime started to rise in growing cities – that people turned to the state. Even then, Sir Robert Peel’s first police force was seen as a trial or experiment at the time it was launched.

In almost every area of life, people turn to government when the going gets tough and they discover that we can achieve more collectively than we can as individuals. You don’t have to be a red-blooded socialist to buy into this way of thinking. Just someone with half a brain in your head.

And talking of people with half a brain in their head, how exactly have Nick Clegg and his sidekicks like Danny Alexander got swept up so quickly with all the Tory free-market nonsense? Have they had a Paulian conversion? Absolutely not. They’ve always been on the economic right, but were previously constrained by the grassroots of the Liberal Democrats and the need to win elections. As I’ve noted before, the only way they could triumph in many constituencies was by claiming to be the anti-Tory party and soaking up the votes of Labour supporters, who were informed their party couldn’t win. Now, the Lib Dem argument is exposed as a hollow sham and its advocates as a bunch of self-serving hypocrites.

It’s very clear that the political cover provided by the Lib Dems is absolutely essential to Cameron and Osborne. In many ways, the coalition government is allowed to get away with deeper cuts because it is seen as being more representative of public opinion. But people who voted Lib Dem didn’t support Clegg so that free school milk budgets could be transferred to ‘free school’ milkers who are looking for state money to pursue their own vainglorious ends.

It will, of course, all end in tears – probably during the course of a second recession created by the savage public service cuts. Eventually, a proportion of the Lib Dem parliamentarians will realise they have been used to do the Tories’ dirty work and received precious little in return. The game will be up. But how much damage will have been done in the meantime?


Popular posts from this blog

I was sad when I quit Labour a year ago. Now, I feel a sense of relief.

What motivates decent people to stay as members of the Labour Party?
It’s a question I’ve been pondering intensely over the past year, which I’ve spent in self-imposed exile. I resigned the moment Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as leader after the contest with Owen Smith.
When I quit, it was with a very heavy heart.
As far back as the late 1980s, I’d served as Labour General Secretary of the London NUS. By the early 90s, I was chairing Frank Dobson’s constituency party in inner London. On two occasions, I stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate.
If you make that kind of commitment, you assume it’s a relationship that will last for life. And even though I hadn’t been an activist in recent years, it never occurred to me that I’d be forced to rip up my party card. 
Today, as Labour’s 2017 conference looms, I wonder how anyone with a moderate viewpoint can kid themselves the party is even worth rescuing.
One group of centre-ground survivors falls into the category of the bloody minded. Like …

What if the whole Corbyn project is based on a lie?

If there’s one thing that scares the Corbyn movement more than anything else, it’s the emergence of a new centre-ground party.
Supporters know very well that once it arrives, the alleged ‘popularity’ of Labour’s far-left leadership would be badly exposed – in just the same way that Michael Foot’s good poll ratings disintegrated with the emergence of the SDP in the early 1980s.
When people are given a choice, many will opt for moderation.
When they lack choice – a particularly stark problem in the UK’s indefensible first-past-the-post electoral system – they tend to polarise to left and right.
For supporters of today’s Labour leadership, it’s therefore critically important to dismiss the centre ground as something which no one wants any more. As a failed ‘neo-liberal’ project, which has no relevance to 2018.
But consider the facts.
A recent BMG Research poll for The Independent found that millions of voters currently find themselves without a political home.
Many feel that the main parties …

Why Momentum's victory in Haringey leaves Corbyn exposed

If you want to see what a Corbyn government might look like, keep an eye on Haringey. The north London borough is set to be taken over by the hard-left Momentum faction, after moderate Labour councillors were deselected in a bitter dispute over housing.
The respected and long-standing council leader, Claire Kober, has said that she won’t be contesting her seat again in May – probably forfeiting her own place on the council to another representative of the Corbyn fan club. She’s also effectively pulled the plug on her £2bn housing initiative – known as the Haringey Development Vehicle or HDV – by saying that the incoming administration can make the final decision on whether it proceeds.
Part of the pressure on Kober came from the extraordinary decision of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee to weigh in on the issue. Thankfully, their intervention provoked a backlash from outraged councillors right around the country. Whatever they thought of the specific model for housing pr…