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Matthew Parris Responds To Jane Campbell Today Interview

January 2, 2016

Yesterday I was privileged to be included in a Today programme guest-edited by Baroness Campbell of Surbiton. She grilled me on a column I’d written suggesting that life is not worth prolonging at all costs, and that any ageing society will in time question how much those wanting help should demand of those who must pay for it.

I found the interview difficult. Jane Campbell is very severely disabled. It would be wrong to use the phrase “kept alive” of so proactive and spirited a person as she, but the equipment, the help and the manpower necessary for her survival are elaborate.

Few would begrudge her this. I wouldn’t. As a lifelong campaigner for disabled people, she gives more than she gets. She helped me to understand that the “usefulness” of any life isn’t something about which we should throw out careless statements.

Careful statements, however, remain necessary. As the Christmas holidays end I invite you to cast your mind back a few days to that familiar festive figure, Ebenezer Scrooge. The flinty fictional curmudgeon has just bowed out for another year, to be put back in the stocks for our amusement next December.

A word, then, in Mr Scrooge’s favour. I respect his quiet heroism. He needs a better publicist than Dickens. “Bah! Humbug!” was never going to catch on; but if you can think of a snappier way of saying “the culture of victimhood could sink us all” then tell me. In the media and in politics we’re in danger of slithering, wet-eyed, into ruin, beneath the weight of uncosted proxy-generosity and political virtue-signalling. “Proxy” because it is other people’s money that ministers are being bounced into spending. Public sympathy is a dangerous driver of public policy.

Lady Campbell was interviewing me but I was tempted to interview her. She said later that there are 11 million disabled people in Britain. As the proportion of our population disabled by old age increases, the figure can only rise. The result — we see it already as our health service struggles — is that an ever-heavier burden falls on proportionately ever fewer wage-earning shoulders.

At present 45 per cent of citizens of pensionable age are classified as disabled. I tried to ask Lady Campbell whether she thinks there’s any limit to the giving/taking ratio: the proportion of younger workers’ earnings that must be taken for those whose incapacity makes them financially dependent on the state.

Perhaps, though, I was lucky not to be conducting this interview: or not with Jane Campbell. The baroness is not a self-pitying person but her physical condition speaks for itself. Imagine I were a politician — in charge, perhaps, of the Treasury purse strings. How could I stand before a woman who cannot stand, and tell her that the state can’t afford to support too many like her? I would have been booed out of the debate — or booted out of office — or “subjected to a torrent of abuse on social media”.

Yet hard cases make bad law, as Scrooge did not quite say. Somebody, though, has to. There’s an easy, lazy habit into which (especially) our news media and (particularly) the BBC have slipped during my lifetime. We make an identifiable, flesh-and-blood individual — a “victim” — the centrepiece of any report on questions of social policy and public spending. The victim — the social housing tenant whose elderly mother will be unable to visit if he loses his spare room; the flood victim who has lost everything; the mobility-impaired mother calling for buses adapted expensively to her needs — are presented as cases in point. They make appealing witnesses. The audience’s sympathies are engaged on the side of the victim.

A politician is then interviewed and repeatedly and aggressively asked what he or she is going to do about it, why they didn’t make provision for it, and how they can live with themselves in the knowledge of it. We may be given a picture of the politician’s own comfortable circumstances. The audience’s sympathy for the victim turns to anger against the politician. Nobody points out that it is not the politician’s own money the victim is asking for, but the audience’s.

Something approaching a media convention has arisen, that the interviewer or reporter doesn’t beat up the complainant, but only the politician. On the BBC’s Question Time panel I once contemplated asking a wheelchair-bound member of the audience who (to applause) was berating a (Labour) minister on the underfunding of the NHS, why she had been smoking in the car park twenty minutes previously — but I thought better of it, probably wisely.

The media interviewer who grills the politician on the government’s housing priorities wouldn’t dream of asking the social housing tenant why he doesn’t go to visit his elderly mother rather than demand the right for her to stay with him. I have yet to see a roving reporter interview the drunks clogging up an A&E department and demanding to know what right they have to prolong the wait of everyone else. To ask a flood victim whether they’d thought of the risk when buying a house on an estate that has flooded often before would seem below the belt.

The problem for our country is that while the “victim” the public meets is a real person, the arguments against making a hard case into a bad law are often theoretical. They turn on unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences of generosity in one direction are often stinginess in another; or an increase in public debt; or “moral hazard” (human beings’ tendency not to help themselves if they can rely on help from others); or the slow, almost imperceptible disabling of a national economy as tax burdens disincentivise work; or our loss of competitiveness in the world. Where are the real, flesh-and-blood victims of these horrors to be found and interviewed? They don’t even know who they are yet. The speculative plight of an unidentified future citizen is unlikely to moisten the eyes of a radio or television audience.

Still, I admire the politician or journalist to whom that individual is real. We need them. We need perhaps another Dickens, and a Ghost of Christmas not-to-come-for-a-century, to lead Scrooge to Tiny Tim’s cruelly overtaxed great, great, grandson; and hear Mrs Cratchit’s indolent great, great, grandaughter’s complaint that the NHS has refused a mobility scooter to her obese son.

We need, in short, a dash of vinegar in our politics this year. And here’s a guess: I bet the public secretly know it.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Florence permalink
    January 2, 2016 3:46 pm

    What a very nasty man. Still banging on about “other peoples money”, and trying to make a respectable case for the worst idea. So there are people for whom (say Parris) a quadruple bypass heart surgery, and expensive rehabilitation, and lifelong care is OK. But for someone else, a disabling heart condition in a retired working class woman is not to be afforded – that despite the technology available, it should be denied and to let this lady die.

    What a very nasty man.

  2. January 2, 2016 3:53 pm

    Jane is a very nice person she is very disabled just as David Cameron son Ivan was before his tragic death.
    Any error in the care of those like Jane or Ivan spells death Ivan was unlucky but despite those that do care in society like my wife for those at the end of their life errors are sometimes made

    What those like Jane do not wont thou is the likes of IDS kicking around and making their life hell or indeed any other sick person.

    only a very few like IDS HATE THE SICK AND DISABLED and we must remember that but there are many in society that are willing to do his dirty work for him be it at the DWP or wherever

    Those that do bad for others wherever they are in society god punishes them and i’m a true believer in that statement

    What we need is decent professional journalism in going forward where the likes of myself get a break from being the main UN lead for keeping the sick and disabled death statistics up to date that should in reality be done by a senior journalist and not myself

    However, as Jane would say to me you’re the best and as i tell her I’m not because the deaths keep just carrying on

  3. shaun permalink
    January 2, 2016 10:09 pm

    I’m very disappointed to have read Mr Parriss’ comments with respect to spending on the cost of elderly people with disabilities, in particular. He states 45% of elderly people are classified as disabled and how can we expect tax payers to fund the cost of keeping these people alive. He appears not to have realised what that means. Well it’s not that hard to appreciate. Namely, that about, 45 % of those paying the taxes now will later in their lives be classified as disabled and as such will need that assistance themselves. Are these tax payers banging at the doors of parliament to cut the funding that is keeping their grandparents alive. No, we are not, and as the fifth/sixth wealthiest nation in the world they know that need not be so. As such self-interest and excessive greed are all I can see as motivations for his comments.

    What he means, I believe, is that I do not want to pay taxes towards helping others, as a wealthy person who pays ‘above average tax’ (though probably not as a percentage of total income ), as I’m so wealthy I can keep myself and those I care for alive without the assistance of a society. He must realise he is of a privileged minority (who derive their wealth from the less privileged majority) and Britain is a democracy and the majority will be inclined to seek some redress for accidents of birth.
    He has worked in parliament and the media so there’s no need for me run through our democratic deficiencies. It seems to me that the great majority of Britain people are not screaming for tax and welfare service cuts – despite his stated insight as to the secrete inner feelings of the majority in this respect. I though, do not have psychic powers as he appears to profess he has. But then Britain’s traditional media has always been more interested in shaping public opinion than reflecting its actual state

  4. decidendi permalink
    January 3, 2016 12:51 pm

    What a hateful nasty little man he is. He has no idea that what he is actually talking about, those ‘hard decisions’ that need to be taken is called genocide. It seems he would like nothing better than a mass cull of the elderly, sick and disabled. He would probably begrudge the State providing us with a lethal injection as it would risk turning us into ‘victims’.

  5. Angela Kennedy permalink
    January 3, 2016 7:15 pm

    Bob Williams Findlay put it brilliantly today when he said this: “May I take this opportunity to thank Matthew Parris for being candid enough to articulate so clearly the Thatcherite ideological position on those of us with impairments. It is rare to read in print how people like Parris see people who in their eyes contribute little to society and therefore should expect to receive little in return.

    Why I’m thanking Parris is because I can now say ‘up yours’, to all those who accused people like me of scaremongering or resorting to Godwin’s Law. The position disabled people find themselves in today in the UK of 2016 is almost identical to that of disabled people in the 1920s within the Weimar Republic – their very right to exist and be supported to live rather than encouraged to die is now under debate. This isn’t bloody scaremongering, this is reality.”

  6. Charles Penn permalink
    January 4, 2016 1:00 am

    I’m missing something here? A well-respected social commentator employed by both the BBC and the Times and an ex MP has just outed himself as an outright Nazi. I mean for really real. No outraged leftie hyperbole this time.

    He has just suggested in a national newspaper that disabled, sick and elderly people should die for the benefit of the taxpayer because they are not useful.

    Where is the outrage? Where is the twitterstorm? Where is a left-wing mob when you need one?

    • January 4, 2016 1:28 am

      The left wing mob is here, on this blog, and on Facebook. But no one heard us screaming because the incident happened at the end of two weeks of public holiday. So his outdated opinions were able to leave his brain almost unnoticed, conveniently. However, please share this post as widely as you like!

  7. January 4, 2016 6:29 pm

    Matthew Parris speaks for most conservative voters born after 1966 as political views started to change at this time from those like myself a caring conservative church leader who always put himself and his family last to the the Conservative rubbish born in after 1966 and growing up in 1979 with Mrs thatchers rubble to look after yourself only

    it’s no wonder the world is in a mess not just the uk. Mrs thatcher who i knew very well was very stubborn and so very narrow minded and so the seeds for all of the worlds ill today

  8. shaun permalink
    January 4, 2016 9:24 pm

    Nick, there is much of merit in your astute comments. A close relative, now in her eighties, and a former membership secretary of a Conservative branch and member for 50 – 60 years resigned from the party last year ostensibly for the reasons you set out in your post. It’s such a shame for Britain, and in particular Scotland and Wales, that what used to be termed the ‘one nation Conservatives’ have so totally lost its voice within today’s Conservative party. I guess the Tory-lite Labour party must have made the job of moderate Conservatives much harder to hold the centre – in essence taking the political role and ideology from the centre of Conservatism.


    • January 5, 2016 6:47 pm

      thanks Shawn for your comment. i am very much burdened by today’s conservative government and to think i could have gone into politics in 1974 makes it very hard for me to not have taken that opportunity up at that time

      i have made very few errors in my life but that was by far the biggest i have made and now many have to pay the price with many losing their life as a result and with the majority not being able to afford a home of their own in a way that i believe they should have

      the bottom line is if you don’t have your own home you then spend your life at the mercy of others who are just to rip you off and that can never be right

      • shaun permalink
        January 5, 2016 10:45 pm

        Mistakes are as certain as birth must proceed death. Equally certain is that it is not possible to go back in time and prevent mistakes being made. It could be argued that the two worst policy failures of the 1980s were the regulation of financial services and housing policy; though, that is with the benefit of hindsight. In addition, depending upon one’s ideology, the faults were in implementation than what the stated aims were meant to be. Professor Simon Lewis-Wren and, oddly enough, Robin Peston’s analysis up to about 2010 of the consequences of too much deregulation need no elaboration. Housing policy is a complete mess, for me both in what government believe can be achieved and the way they are going about achieving their aim.

        With ever greater liberalization of the labour market, reduction in the short-term assistance against the outcomes of that policy and a failure to build enough houses to meet demand. This applies equally to effective demand as to the social need for people to have decent homes (i.e. those who can not afford to purchase a home or pay the rent needed to produce an increased supply of decent rental property). To be fair throughout the early modern era and up to the present day, low paid workers, the disabled, single parents and others have not been paid enough to purchase their own home or pay the market rent for a home of an acceptable standard. That is why between 1948 – the 1980s governments of all hues have implemented differing schemes to bridge the gap. As I can see nothing has occurred to change that basic fact – though the percentage has moved up and down – since the 1980s.. What has changed is that after 1948 and prior to the 1980s we built, in some years, 400,000 homes per year and only very rarely below 250,000 houses per annum; whereas, from the 1980s onwards, the average annual build has been less than 250,000. It can be added that most of those post 1980s new builds have been built for sale, through a mortgage.

        Those who own their home, not to mention property developers, have a massive vested interest in making sure supply is always less than demand. Though less in number the same applies to those who provide homes for rent. There is a lot more that could be stated, but it seems fairly certain that a major intervention by government must take place. It’s rarely mentioned but the high percentage of people’s income being spent on housing costs ‘crowds out’ money for pensions, investment and non-debt funded demand.


  9. January 6, 2016 4:55 pm

    So my family who pay more tax in one year, than the whole of my income, or any pension they would draw on a yearly bases, with plenty to spare, don’t have a right for me to be kept alive? Really? I think they’d have something to say about that, as would many other families who all pay their tax, even if that’s a lower rate; either way it doesn’t matter, rather I’m demonstrating that some families in fact DO pay their way Mr P.

    As a friend says to me often, these despicable people will only learn when they themselves need help, and as I always say, no, sorry, even when some do suffer physical disabilities, cancers and deaths in their families, they still NEVER learn and NEVER empathise (IDS, Cameron, Labour M.P.s too).

    • shaun permalink
      January 6, 2016 10:06 pm

      Your right they will never suffer as much as those of us who where not born to parents that £millions in the bank. 18 multimillionaires in the current cabinet. It’s a National Insurance scheme.
      On a side issue the figures used as the basis fir calculating national debt/deficit exclude tax payers’ money used to rescue our banking system. Not so much a side issue it’s one the real reasons for austerity – the other is that we’ve a bunch of greedy b……..’s running the country.

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