Matthew Parris Responds To Jane Campbell Today Interview
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.