Thursday, 30 December 2010

A gleam of niceness in the nasty darkness

Its desperately unfair to suggest that the top echelons of the British Conservative Party are inhabited exclusively by figures who make Dr No look like a model of magnanimity and charm.

On the contrary, once in every generation, there appears among leading Tories someone for whom it’s possible to feel admiration and goodwill. Sometimes it even happens twice.

Back in 1988 or 1989, Britain was in the grips of one of the great natural disasters that afflict mankind from time to time. In this particular case, it was the high tide of the Thatcher government. Like every government in this country, it was tinkering with the health service. This is something that happens in country after country, but it feels rather more often here than elsewhere.

Driving such so-called ‘reforms’ is a quest as enduring and as ultimately hopeless as the pursuit of the Holy Grail. Every now and then the government decides that it’s going to improve the quality of healthcare while reducing its costs. This is generally a fond desire of a new government, whatever its party make-up, but even when they’ve been around a while their naturally naivety sometimes re-emerges and they have another go.

The big problem with healthcare is that we are constantly finding new ways of treating all sorts of diseases, usually at colossal new costs. The internet makes sure we all know about them and when we get sick, we naturally insist on them. This means hospitals can treat lots of things much better than in the past, but at much higher cost.

So when governments start getting keen on an exciting new initiative to improve care and control costs, what they really mean is control costs. They never succeed, of course. What happens is that they try to find ‘efficiency savings’ by reducing the numbers of managers, and they achieve that reduction by introducing new structures to run the service. Those structures need managers, and mostly they’re exactly the same managers who just lost their previous jobs.

While the government is making the latest futile effort to control the uncontrollable, it becomes pretty massively unpopular with the National Health Service. The managers who are about to lose staff, or even worse their own jobs, get terribly upset about it, particularly as it’s not always immediately clear that they’re going to get new jobs shortly.

Back then, the Thatcher government was in the throes of another of its periodic health service reforms. The man in charge of seeing them through, the Secretary of State for Health, was as popular among healthcare managers as a paedophile in a primary school. So I was amused to see that he was going to be speaking at a conference of the Institute of Health Services Managers which I was also going to attend.

‘Daniel in a den of lions,’ I thought, ‘this I have to see.’

He was extraordinary. He turned up in his trademark get-up: a crumpled, ill-fitting suit; a shirt that straining to hold in his capacious belly; suede shoes, a particular indulgence of his at the time. Everything about him declared him to be exactly what his reputation suggested: a pleasant, amusing man, more at home with a pint of beer in his hand swapping jokes with his friends in a pub than in any other context. He was clearly likeable and what in Britain we call ‘blokey’.

What wasn’t immediately apparent was the quality of the brain behind his cheerful countenance. And his capacity for intellectual honesty. After his speech, he called for questions from the floor, and took them as they came, free and unfiltered. He even called on the president of the Institute, though she was bound to launch a ferocious attack on his policies. There were many questions to which he didn’t know the answer, but he didn’t reply with bluster or evasion – he simply said he didn’t know, outlined what he thought the answer might be if he had a tentative idea and said he’d get the information.

It was a masterful performance. It completely disarmed the opposition to him – by the end the audience wasn’t exactly eating out of his hand, but it was quietened, listening, prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Quite remarkable.

Who was he? Ken Clarke. Since then, he has been beaten twice in contests for the leadership of the Tory Party – the Nasty Party certainly wasn’t going to have anyone as emollient as Ken as its leader. Even so, they’ve had to learn to live with him, and even the present unappetising bunch had to make him Justice Minister. In which role, he has recently announced that no, he would not be honouring a manifesto commitment to lock up anyone involved in knife crime, on the grounds that there are already more than enough people in our gaols and we should actually be getting a few out rather than adding more to them (only the US imprisons more people than Britain, in that part of the world that likes to think of itself as free). And he’s even dared to speak the truth from which all other politicians slide away, that prison doesn’t, actually, work – if by working we mean reducing the overall level of crime.

Ken Clarke: endearing exception to prove the rule for the Nasty Party
Extraordinary. He impressed me twenty odd years ago, he impresses me still. He’s standing up inside the Conservative Party for values which ultimately can only be described as Liberal. Indeed, within the so-called Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition we have today, he strikes me as the only genuine Liberal in the whole sorry crowd.

You can sometimes find gems hidden in the manure heap. It may be a pretty big heap but, hey, it's encouraging when you occasionally find that gem.

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