Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Accept reality: there is no Santa Claus

Most of us now view politicians much as my younger son began to regard Santa Claus last month.

Two-year-old Jamie had a series of meetings with Santa at a variety of events. At each he was asked what he wanted for Christmas and replied, unfailingly, “a race car”.

At which Santa asked whether he had been a good boy and then handed over a small package that clearly, from its shape and size, contained either a book or a cuddly toy.

Each time Jamie eagerly unwrapped it and his little face fell as he surveyed the contents.

“Oh,” he said with infinite sadness. “I was hoping for a race car.”

Luckily the real Santa turned up on Christmas Eve with just enough racing cars to restore his faith in superhuman nature.

What, you might ask, has any of this got to do with politicians as we brace ourselves for months of General Election campaigning?

Simply that we too have a wish list – lower immigration, better roads, cheaper rail fares, improved health services, tax increases for the rich, tax cuts for ourselves – that the various Santas of the main parties may promise to deliver.

But then they’ll simply hand over the same old package that they had planned all along, and we will be terribly disappointed.

This is because our expectations, like Jamie’s, are fundamentally unrealistic. The national finances are knackered, to use the technical economists’ jargon, and whoever is in charge is going to struggle to do much for us against that background.

Let us take health as an example, because I happen to have had recent experience of attending Wansbeck Hospital for an NHS scan.

The premises were top notch, the equipment clearly state-of-the-art, the staff charming and my appointments on time. This is exactly what people pay for private health insurance in the hope of achieving.

Now, as it happens, the service at Wansbeck is provided in partnership with a private company: InHealth.

Why should anyone care? It works brilliantly and it remains free to the patient. If this is the sort of “privatisation” that is going to make the NHS “unrecognisable” after another five years of Tory government, I’d vote for more of it.

What’s more, I feel no confidence that Labour in office would do anything radically different, given that they persisted with the Private Finance Initiative and the introduction of private partners to the NHS throughout their 13 years in office.

The key, plain fact of the “NHS crisis” was disarmingly explained on the radio the other morning by a scientist introducing his research findings that two thirds of cancers are caused by random mutations on which neither lifestyle nor heredity has any bearing.

The human body, he said, has a design life of approximately 40 years and after that it will start breaking down, no matter how careful you are.

Trying to keep me, at the age of 60, doing all the things I used to enjoy in my 20s is like trying to do 24,000 miles a year in a 1954 Morris Minor. It’s likely to cover rather a lot of them on the top of a recovery truck.

But we expect the NHS to keep us going in good health until we are 80, 90 and – in ever-increasing numbers – 100.

The potential cost of trying to do this is limitless and ruinous. No political party is ever going to be able to deliver it, so like young Jamie we might as well stop wishing and accept the reality of ongoing disappointment.

Because there isn’t a benevolent Mummy and Daddy to step in and save the day for the NHS, the roads budget, the armed services or anything else.

Accept reality – and bear in mind that the reality of hard times in Britain is infinitely preferable to the condition of most of the rest of the world – and we will undoubtedly face fewer disappointments.

That knowledge may also enhance our lives for the next few months as we reach for the “off” switch at the start of every pointless political debate. After all, we don’t need a doctor to tell us they are very bad indeed for our blood pressure.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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