It’s all Just Too Difficult

Fantasy politics is turning Britain into a shambles

What is the connection between Britain's elderly or ailing citizens, Afghanistan and the illegal migrants in the English Channel?

The answer is that they each furnish an example of fantasy politics — policy that spectacularly deflects attention away from the one issue that actually matters because that issue is thought to be Just Too Difficult. 

Consider. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has become embroiled in a row with his own Conservative party because he has announced he will increase national insurance payments to fund a £12 billion boost to spending on health and long-term care. 

Tory MPs are furious because they believe the Conservatives are a party of low tax or they are nothing, and moreover that this breaks a manifesto promise of no tax rises.

But there are other, more fundamental reasons to object to this proposal. Johnson says reforming the funding of long-term care is “something that frankly should have been done a long time ago”. True enough. But as many have pointed out, most of this money will be siphoned off into the black hole that is the National Health Service before any of it is channelled into long term care. The Times (£) reports:

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said the levy, funded by a 1.25 percentage point tax increase, would result in 44 per cent of all day-to-day government spending going on health and social care by 2025, up from 32 per cent a decade ago. 

“The plan seems to be for the £12 billion raised from the tax rise to be increasingly channelled into social care as the parliament goes on, to meet the growing costs of the government’s new ‘cap and floor’ plan for social care funding,” the institute said. “But that would require the government to stick to these NHS spending totals — something which history teaches us is unlikely. Instead, the experience of the past 40 years shows that NHS spending plans are almost always topped up. 

“If history repeats itself, the ‘temporary’ increases in NHS funding announced this week could end up permanently swallowing up the money raised by the tax rise.”

“Could” end up swallowing the extra money? It’s a racing certainty.

As has been obvious for decades, the taxpayer-funded, state-controlled, centralised NHS is a top-down behemoth over which patients have no leverage and which is therefore immune to any real pressure to improve its performance. With the administrators who run it invariably looking upwards to their political paymasters, their last priority is the best interests of the patients. No surprise, then, that as reported today the NHS is now hiring dozens of senior managers on salaries of up to £270,000 per year.

The core problem with the NHS is not lack of money. It’s the NHS itself.  This failing monster — kept going through the dedication and heroism of the vast majority of its doctors, nurses and front-line support staff — is deemed an untouchable sacred cow by every government because of the vast affection it engenders in the British public, for whom it remains just about the last collective institution to engender a sense of collective purpose and national pride.

But such pride is misplaced. As a delivery service for high quality health care, the NHS falls significantly behind systems elsewhere organised on different principles. In many European countries, health care is delivered through social insurance which covers everyone and produces higher standards for all by giving patients leverage through competition between health care providers.  Similar principles are the fairest way to deliver long-term social care, too.

Yet because in Britain the word “insurance” conjures up the image of private health schemes, which leave poorer people unable to access the same high quality care as the better-off and which therefore provokes visceral hostility, politicians flinch from suggesting that the NHS is fatally flawed and refuse to educate the public that this is not a binary choice.

Social insurance is a third way and is fair, compassionate and delivers much higher standards. Yes, it would cost more. But with the poorest remaining protected, many would surely welcome a system which provides coverage for all, higher standards — and public money that is overwhelmingly ploughed into genuinely improving front-line care rather than adding to the financial gravy-train of the administrative class.

Yet like his predecessors, Boris Johnson wouldn't dream of suggesting that anything is wrong with the NHS, because the real issue here requires courage and leadership and therefore is Just Too Difficult. 

Next, the debacle of the US-led retreat from Afghanistan and the resulting return to power of the Taliban whose regime incubated al Qaeda.

Boris Johnson seems to believe that there are now nice, cuddly, reasonable Taliban alongside the old, horrible, psychopathic Taliban. In a Commons debate on Monday, he told MPs

We need to ensure that the elements of the Taliban who are different, as I believe they are from the Taliban of 1996-9, are encouraged and that we put the maximum pressure on them not to allow the more retrograde elements to have the upper hand.  That is what this government and other government around the world are going to do.

On Sunday,  Johnson had said:

And if the new regime in Kabul wants diplomatic recognition, or to unlock the billions that are currently frozen they will have to ensure safe passage for those who wish to leave the country, to respect the rights of women and girls, to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming an incubator for global terror, because that would be disastrous for Afghanistan.

So how’s that agenda of incentive and encouragement working out so far?

 On Tuesday, the Taliban announced the formation of an interim government for Afghanistan. It filled its top posts with hardliners, former detainees at Guantánamo Bay, members of the US-designated Haqqani terrorist network and subjects of an international sanctions list. The New York Times reports

After weeks of assurances from Taliban leaders that the movement would offer a more moderate and inclusive style of governing, most of the acting appointments on Tuesday were of senior figures who served in similar roles decades ago — a sign that the group’s conservative and theocratic core remain largely unchanged. All were men, and several are listed by the United States and United Nations as global terrorists.  

“I assure all our countrymen that these officials will work hard to uphold Islamic rules and Shariah law,” Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, the movement’s supreme leader, said in a written statement handed out at a news conference in Kabul. 

That means behaving as the Taliban have been behaving since they swept into power: murdering a pregnant police officer in front of her family; brutally beating journalists for hours on end with cables and pipes; banning women from leaving the house without a male relative and forcing them to wear head to toe burqas, with some commanders demanding that families hand over unmarried women to marry their fighters.

It’s surely obvious to anyone with the slightest degree of knowledge that the notion of a reasonable Islamist jihadi fanatic is a ludicrous fantasy. But to Boris Johnson, the alternative requires high statesmanship and tough decisions (of a military nature — horrors!) and is therefore Just Too Difficult. 

Then there’s the issue of the illegal migrants, who are crossing the English Channel from France in an apparently unstoppable stream of unseaworthy vessels. For this dangerous passage, they pay people-smugglers to pack them into overloaded craft at risk of sinking and drowning — but in the certainty that under the laws of the sea they will be rescued, and that in all probability they will actually be escorted by British officials to the British shore.

So far this week, more than 1,500 people have crossed the English Channel by this means. To this black farce, the British authorities seem beyond powerless and clueless. The Times (£) reported two days ago that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was 

said to be furious at the low numbers of migrants being intercepted before they reach British waters.

Furious, eh. That should get the French trembling at the knees. When Patel met even more furious Tory MPs this week, she tried to mollify them by waving her fists:

Patel offered to pay £54 million to France to double their patrols of the shoreline but threatened to withhold this if the country’s authorities fail to hit a rate of 75 per cent.

Patel told the MPs: “We’ve not given them a penny of the money so far and France is going to have to get its act together if it wants to see the cash. It’s payment by results and we’ve not yet seen those results. The money is conditional.”

Now The Times (£) reports that she has ordered officials to rewrite Britain’s interpretation of maritime law to allow Britain's border force to intercept these boats in the Channel. The paper says: 

Officers would then contact the French coastguard to inform it that vessels in French territorial waters were in need of rescue. That would place in France the legal responsibility for the migrant boats. 

All of this is beyond farcical. The idea that the French would have any incentive to help the British (especially given the bad blood after Brexit) is illusory. Intercepting the boats to send them back to France would depend on whether they were seaworthy (many are not and fewer still would be as a result of the passage of such a law) or not loaded over capacity (most are).  And if the migrants jump into the sea — which they have often threatened to do — the British will have no alternative but to rescue them from drowning. 

Trying to get the French to stop this traffic is to duck the real problem. The reason so many migrants want to come to Britain is that it has made itself the most attractive destination in the world for such people. That’s because migrants correctly perceive it to be a soft touch. They know that Britain’s slavish adherence to human rights laws makes it so difficult to deport them that there’s every chance they won’t be sent away but will be able to melt into the country and receive accommodation and welfare services.

To end this farce, therefore, Britain has to remove all those incentives. It has to send such migrants away from Britain for the processing of their asylum claims — to  cruise liners in the North Sea, to the Isle of Man, the Falklands, wherever; deport them to the first country to which they fled; or fly them straight back to France. Anyone without proper documentation should be made to realise they will never be entitled to British citizenship or to access Britain’s health, housing or welfare services. 

To do anything like this, however, would not only provoke a storm of accusations of racism, cruelty, inhumanity and so forth. It would also be prohibited by the courts. To enact the draconian measures needed to stop this illegal migrant traffic, Britain would have to leave the European Convention on Human Rights and maybe also the Refugee Convention  — which it is deeply unwilling to do.

As for changing Britain’s interpretation of maritime law, this in the same league as the not infrequently floated idea of rewriting human rights law. Well, the British government can rewrite its interpretation of international law to its heart’s content; but the inconvenient fact remains that, while the UK is party to the relevant treaties and conventions, it remains bound by them.

If Britain cannot accept the terms of those treaties and conventions, it must leave them. Otherwise it will just have to take what follows and lump it. But Boris Johnson  cannot admit this; nor will he take the action that is necessary, because that would take courage and leadership and that’s all Just Too Difficult. 

And so we have the sad and profoundly distressing shambles that is Britain today.

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