Saturday, 27 February 2016

Conservatives avoid ideology

The problem with the Left, I’m frequently told, is that it’s too driven by dogmatic ideology. This means that instead of taking decisions in the light of real circumstances, it attempts to apply a sort of rule book of what it thinks of as principles: no NHS worker should ever be made redundant, no benefits claimant should ever lose entitlement, no nuclear weapon should ever be used.

On the other hand, parties of the Centre-Right, like the British Conservative Party, or the saner (i.e. non-Trump, non-Tea Party) reaches of the US Republican Party, are pragmatic in their outlook. They study how things really are before they reach a decision, and then adopt a policy that takes fully into account the reality of circumstances, That, after all, is the only way to ensure the success of a policy.

Crazy ideologues
Unlike the fine pragmatists behind tough new conditions for junior doctors
For instance, back in 2010 the British Conservatives, seeing the parlous state of the world and in particular British economy (which had been mismanaged by Labour doing crazy things like spending on healthcare), decided pragmatically to sort out the deficit in public spending with a view, ultimately, to reducing public debt.

What made the task more difficult was that they took another pragmatic decision: never, under any circumstances, to increase taxes. Let’s be absolutely clear that there’s nothing ideological about such a stance. It’s purely pragmatic. The Conservatives have observed reality and reached the inspired insight that no one likes taxes. This is especially true of their supporters. So they opposed tax increases.

As a result, bringing the public deficit under control hasn’t gone as well as they might like. Conservative austerity policies have hugely reduced public expenditure. It’s true that they’ve created crisis conditions in our hospitals and our classrooms, but it needed to be done. Or so I’m told. Needed to be done, even though, far from falling, the UK national debt has grown to the highest levels ever seen.

Still, they haven’t increased taxation. Why, they’ve even reduced it for top incomes. A pragmatic decision, presumably based on the pragmatic observation that most of their major contributors benefit from that reduction, and by increasing their disposable income, there’s a reasonable chance that more of it will be disposed of towards them. Pragmatically.

The government has also decided to address a terrible public health problem, growing rapidly throughout the prosperous world: obesity and, in particular, childhood obesity. They have promised us a strategy for tacking it. According to today’s Guardian, they promised it for December 2015. Then for January, then February, then perhaps March. Now, it seems, the date has gone out to June.

As the Guardian made clear, this may in part be due to the fact that increasing numbers of people are calling for a tax on sugar in drinks and foods. There is a widespread view that this might reduce obesity, particularly among children. Obese children are much more likely to encounter health problems as adults, including type II diabetes which, apparently, now absorbs 10% of NHS expenditure.

The popularity of this call for a tax is a problem for the government. They don’t want to publish a strategy that doesn’t call for one. Nor, however, do they want to introduce such a tax. Remember? Conservatives don’t increase taxes. Ever. Whatever the circumstances.

Shame, really. There’s a major health problem to address. And a significant saving for the NHS to generate. But, hey, we don’t increase taxes.

It’s just as well they don’t suffer from the besetting sin of the Left: ideology. Otherwise they might be so rigidly and uncompromisingly wedded to a view that they wrongly treat as a principle that it would prevent them taking necessary action.

And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

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