The NHS – Let’s have a rational debate

As Camilla Cavendish remarked in yesterday’s Times, the NHS is secular Britain’s national religion. It is considered sacred and is almost immune to criticism in a way that Jesus and God haven’t been for a while.

On whether the government’s reforms should go ahead, most of the arguments against it aren’t really arguments at all, just chants of “Save the NHS!”, “NHS not for sale!”, and claims that the government is trying to “privatize” the NHS. Apparently, the NHS is so good, so sacred, so unique (last time I looked, there were many other countries with universal healthcare systems that outperform ours) that we can’t reform it in any way because, well…they’re trying to privatize the NHS! And destroy it! And Nick Clegg’s an evil traitor!

Courteousy of the Daily Telegraph (UK)

Now I’m no expert on the NHS, and I’m not going to belittle anyone who has a problem with these specific reforms. But let’s please have a rational, not emotional, debate about it. Only time will tell whether the government’s plans will work, but generally competition is a better way of running things than the state. As far as I know, some European countries do fine with an element of competition in their system, having just as much accessibility for the poor and far better results.

I don’t know whether GPs taking control of 80% of the health budget will work or reduce beauracracy. However, there was a letter written by several doctors to the Telegraph saying that GP commissioning already exists; the reforms will just increase what’s already there (remember, these reforms are partly a continuation of what was started by the previous government) and give them more of a say in the commissioning. (By the way, yes, I know there are plenty of other medical doctors who are emphatically against the reforms, but then back in the 1940s there was plenty of professional opposition to the very creation of the NHS. It doesn’t guarantee that it’s all going to be a complete disaster.)

As for the plan for an independent board allocating health resources, you can see it as Andrew Lansley trying to “weasel his way out of responsibility” if you want, but I see it as health professionals who know their job, rather than politicians who aren’t experts, doing the work that suits them. And if it’s run efficiently, it may be a far better and less wasteful use of taxpayers’ money than the primary care trusts they’re scrapping.

What really would be nice would be if we could widen the debate to the NHS itself. Is the NHS, as it is currently constituted, a good thing? Why is health and not, say, food so basic a right that the state should have a monopoly over it? Should there not be competition and people making a profit out of food (anyway, countless doctors and I might say too many public sector workers make profits out of the NHS, so why not businessmen?)? Should there be a National Food Service?

Is it fair that poor people have to pay taxes for the healthcare of rich people who could easily pay for it themselves? What if our health system was more like Singapore’s, where most people pay out of personal healthcare accounts, but if they can’t afford it, the government helps them out? Would that make healthcare fairer, less costly and better-quality?

There may be some good counter-answers to these questions. But let’s at least think about them. Being against the NHS is a thought-crime and anyone who voices this opinion stands no chance of being taken seriously by the majority of people. I really, really hope we can change this because it’s obstructive to proper debate and it’s obstructive to progress.


Is global warming real, and what should we do about it?

Yesterday’s topic suggestion from the Daily Post was the question of whether global warming is real. Well I’m not quite educated enough about climate science to give you all the details, but in answer to the question of whether it’s real, yes—you don’t need to be a scientist to know that the world is warming up. If you look at the graph below, the rate of warming has accelerated a lot in about the past forty years (and it’s probably no to do with the sun). You can point to the cold winters the West has had for the past few years, but overall the world in general is warming.

There's been a clear trend of warming over the past half-century, and it's no longer about the sun.

Even most skeptics accept that the climate is changing. The real debate is whether or not climate change/global warming is (a) caused mainly by human beings and (b) something we should worry about. While the public in America and the UK (but not mainland Europe) is split on this issue, about 98% of active climatologists would say yes to both questions.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all going to die. There have been new discoveries that the Greenland ice cap isn’t melting at quite the rate we thought it was and some glaciers are actually growing (so annoying the Times is behind that paywall). These don’t mean the skeptics are right, but it does suggest that global warming may not be as bad as some doomsday environmentalists would have us believe.

What do I think? Again, I’m no expert, but given the very wide consensus among climate scientists who do know their stuff in this area, I think completely denying global warming and not taking any action about it would be a foolish mistake.

However, call me a cynic but I think that trying to stop climate change now is rather futile. People are very unlikely to change their ways until it’s too late. What we need to do is find a way to adapt to global warming – and given that we can survive in space, we can surely survive on a warmer planet. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but realistically we won’t get it done before it’s too late. This may mean large-scale migration and a change to many other aspects of our lives (people will change their lives if they want to live, they just won’t do it quickly enough to stop climate change happening), but a warmer planet isn’t necessarily one that we can’t live on.

I will also say something else: the planet is not in danger. The Earth has been through far, far worse than what we’re doing to it. The amount of turbulence in the Earth’s early days that it managed to sustain was pretty phenomenal, and then it managed to support human life later on. The Earth is remarkably strong and a little increase in greenhouse gases will do little or no harm to it. If anyone or thing is in danger from climate change, it’s us and animal life – not the planet. 

That’s my take on the issue. If anyone more educated about climate science disagrees with me or wants to bring up a different point, they can do so in the comments.


The monarchy: outdated as it is but overall a good thing for the country

Personally I'm not mad about the royal wedding, but William and Kate have brought unity to the country and admiration from the world

Well as of today, Prince William and now Princess Kate are officially husband and wife. I gave in to curiosity and watched part of the wedding on TV and I wish them well, but I’m not particularly mad about the royal wedding and I haven’t followed it closely.

Despite this, I have to say, the joy brought to and the attention from 2 billion people around the world does make me glad to be British and glad that we have a monarchy. This day has not only brought celebration and unity among us all, it has reminded us of something else as well: We have something unique – a head of state who is supported by (almost) everyone in this and fifty-two other countries, regardless of their political views, and who brings an unbelievable amount of tourism, money and admiration to us from around the world.

Having said all this, I am not a staunch royalist in that I don’t believe we should keep the monarchy entirely the way it still is. Beneath all the good things about it, it is still symbolic of the elitist idea that monarchy was originally founded on – the God-given right of a single family to rule over everyone else. I know it’s not exactly how it is today, but the idea that the monarch is “Defender of the Faith” stinks of that notion that kings and queens are “little gods on earth” who, because they’re approved by God, can rule over us however they like.

As Daniel Hannan has said, back in 1701 Catholicism may have been associated with the harsh regimes on the European mainland, but it doesn’t fit nowadays. We are also now a country where people of all and no religions are treated equally (half of us aren’t religious anyway), and other large countries of the Commonwealth, like Australia, India and Pakistan respectively, are mostly Catholic, Hindu or Muslim. The monarch shouldn’t have to be Anglican, and Rowan Williams, not Queen Elizabeth, should be head of the Church of England.

While I was edgy about it at first, I now also support the way the government is trying to abolish the male primogeniture (annoying long and difficult to pronounce and remember word). This is another symbol of a disturbing male-supremacist past, and it still means that William and Kate will now be under pressure to have a son so that they can continue the rule of the Windsor family, which shouldn’t happen.

I am in no way suggesting we should be particularly ashamed of our past. Every nation has ugly parts of its history, and with the Bill of Rights, a relatively democratic past two centuries and constant peaceful campaign for change, our past is less ugly than even most other Western countries. I am no fan of political correctness, but I still think our monarchy needs a small change so it is no longer a symbol of authoritarian, theocratic rule. Instead it should simply be an apolitical symbol of our country, our heritage and the values of the Commonwealth.

I will wrap it up by wishing all the best to Kate and William. Have a very happy and fulfilling marriage and thank you for bringing happiness around the world today.

What if I were Prime Minister?

What would change if I was Prime Minister for the day? Well there’s not much you can change in a day. Come to think of it, the UK Prime Minister can do countless things, from appointing quangocrats to starting wars, without Parliament’s consent, so I suppose I could do quite a lot – unless my Cabinet colleagues kicked up a fuss (which for me is the killer because some of them would).

Personally, I would  try to decrease the power of the Prime Minister and of the government, and hand it over to Parliament. Of course that doesn’t go far enough. If I could be Prime Minister for, say, several months, I would attempt to devolve much of the rest of it to local councils, although Parliament would gain back other power from me withdrawing Britain from the EU (IF I succeeded – but that’s a big if with our politicians).

If I managed to do all that, it would go some way to making the Prime Minister look more like, say, the US President, who can’t get his way all the time, and can’t really do anything without the backing of Congress – or in many areas, simply can’t do anything, because that power is given to states or local authorities. I wish our Prime Minister had that little power. The country would have a smaller government, it would be more democratic and it would be better run – because it wouldn’t be entirely run by David Cameron.

Now there’s a bonus.

P.S. Then again, you can’t really blame David Cameron because he’s too busy; he’s taken too much on. Maybe if he gave some of his power and responsibilities away he would be a better Prime Minister. Who knows?

My mixed feelings about David Cameron’s immigration speech

Well this morning, David Cameron made a speech about how mass immigration has “discomforted and disjointed” communities and therefore Labour’s open-door immigration policy must take part of the blame for the rise of the BNP and other extremist organizations.

To an extent I think this is true. Whilst the previous government can at least be credited for finally deciding a couple of years ago that yes, maybe they had gone a bit too far, they took a pretty long time to do it. Their blind support for mass immigration, and especially multiculturalism, certainly did allow the BNP to attract disenchanted Labour voters (from whom they get most of their votes), and to say the established parties were ignoring the people’s concerns.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

But his solutions? He wants to ban spouses under 21 from being imported into the UK (similar to what the Danish government has done). He wants to dramatically shrink the numbers of skilled workers coming in and tighten rules for student visas, so that immigration levels will go from hundreds of thousands a year to the tens of thousands that came in the Thatcher and Major years.

That first suggestion would do a lot of good, and would certainly go far in stopping forced marriages, but I’m wary about the second proposal. Labour’s policy of completely uncontrolled immigration, which allowed over 2 million people to settle here under the 13 years of Labour government that we had, was clearly unacceptable. But do we really need to bring immigration levels back to how they were in the ’80s and ’90s?

Whilst for most of those years I wasn’t even alive, I do know it was a completely different time. We didn’t have as many pensioners and we didn’t have as few young people as we have today. Britain does need skilled immigrants to help pay for the health and pensions of old people, so that when they make up half the population by 2050 or whenever (and so the Tories will probably be permanently in government!), our whole economy won’t collapse. We should certainly stick to the points system that Labour eventually introduced, and make some steps to further lower immigration, but why not be a bit flexible on work permits so we get a lot of skilled and hard-working people coming to temporarily work here, and instead focus most of our controls on permanent settlement?

Also, why not leave the EU so we can control immigration from inside as well as outside Europe? Why not ban the burka in all public buildings as well as schools and banks (but not everywhere as the French have done, nor go down the silly route of banning minarets as the Swiss have done)? Mr Cameron’s speech is helpful, and it’s not irresponsible and unwise as Vince Cable has said. It’s far less “inflammatory” than probably any speech that any issue-denying Labour politician has ever made. But in some ways it goes too far and in other ways it doesn’t go far enough.

Above all, let’s stop dishonestly making out that we can control immigration properly and be part of the EU at the same time. Eastern European immigrants are on course to be at least as big in number as any group of non-European immigrants, so there’s no point in controlling non-EU migration when you can’t control EU migration as well.

Yes to AV—but it’s the wrong referendum

It’s less than a month to go until the country has to choose between the current system we use to elect MPs – first-past-the-post – and the Alternative Vote. Exciting, eh? I think it’s clear that not many people care deeply about this issue, so it’s a shame that the first nation-wide referendum we get in thirty-odd years is not of more demand.

But which way should we vote? Personally I’m not old enough to vote, but hopefully I can persuade a few people here. If I could, I would vote yes to AV – on balance, although both sides make good and bad arguments.

The main thing that would have held me back from considering AV was if it made hung parliaments more likely. But really it doesn’t. Since Australia introduced AV in 1918, they have had fewer of them than we have (and, if the current coalition government is anything to go by, it’s not as if the current system is immune to them either). And this is because AV is not a form of PR and does not claim to be. It simply makes MPs more representative of their constituents as a whole.

The first-past-the-post system can longer claim to represent the British people. Back in 1950 we had a strong two-party system, with as much as 86% of people voting Labour or Conservative. Since then that figure has slumped to 65% (in last year’s election). We now have three main parties in England, and four in Scotland and Wales.

While our current system works fine elsewhere, in two-party countries like the US, it’s clearly grossly unfair for us. Last year the Lib Dems (though I know that for many this is not an example that will attract sympathy) got 23% of the votes but less than 9% of the seats. UKIP came fourth and got about five times as many votes as the Irish Democratic Unionist Party – but didn’t come close to winning a single seat. How many seats did the DUP win? Eight.

AV could certainly mean a few more minor parties winning some seats, by letting people know that they can vote with their heads and hearts and they don’t have to vote tactically to make a difference. However, the most likely way it would change is making everyone’s vote count. If you vote for a candidate and he wins, great. If you vote for a candidate and he doesn’t win, your second, third etc. choice still means you have a voice and can decide the outcome.

And before any anti-AV people say that this is unfair and means one person’s vote counts more than another, that’s exactly what happens with first-past-the-post. If I vote Conservative in Surrey, my vote will count more than a Mancunian’s vote for the same party; vice versa Labour. If I vote Green anywhere other than in Caroline Lucas’ Brighton seat, my vote won’t count nearly as much. At the end of the day, if I vote for a minor candidate and deep down I know it’s pretty unlikely they’ll win, why shouldn’t my second preference be counted so I can still have an influence on the outcome?

And obviously, it would mean that the vast majority of MPs would be elected by a majority of their constituents. It is incredibly unfair that MPs can be elected with under 30% of the vote, so that a clear majority of their constituents don’t support them. See here for a good example of how FPTP unfairly splits votes, and how eliminating the problem by introducing AV would solve many other problems as well.

Generally, AV is far fairer than the current system, without leading to more unstable governments (and let’s face it, even if it did it’s better to have occasional instabilty than an ongoing cycle of the same old Lab-Con-sensus). And if you are a supporter of real proportional representation and you think AV is too much of a compromise, just remember this will probably be the only chance we get for decades to change the voting system. If we say no, we are rejecting change and a whole generation will miss out on it.

But again, it’s a shame that the referendum we’re getting is really just a coalition deal that doesn’t prey on people’s minds much. I doubt much more than a third of the electorate will bother to turn up and vote. What we really should get is a referendum on leaving the EU, for which a yes vote would make a huge difference – for the better, in the minds of many, many people who care about this issue.

Still, this is the choice we’re being offered, so if we want any kind of reform, we should go for it.

Ideology is overrated


A "centrist moderate social libertarian", am I? You learn something new every day.

Left- or right-wing, socialist, liberal or conservative – it seems everyone who talks about politics has to neatly fit into one of these categories. According to the Political Spectrum Quiz, I am pretty much a centrist, as well as being moderately libertarian (a “centrist moderate social libertarian” in their words). 

This sounds about right, but I have to admit (and my Twitter followers will have found out) that I do find myself sympathising quite a lot more with right-wing people, groups and ideas than left-wing ones. I suppose, though, it is an American website, from a country where our Conservative Party – not that I support them – wouldn’t really be seen as right-wing (although we forget that the Americans have a media and a Congress that is a lot more diverse than what we have), a bit like how my views would probably be considered far-right in countries like Sweden.

Taking all these quizzes can be an interesting exercise (well, sometimes) but I do think people put a bit too much value on ideology. It’s good to have principles, and I do like to think of myself as an all-round (or “classical”) liberal – despite being rather conservative on immigration etc. But what works, and what really does change people’s lives for the better, is the most important thing.

Someone the other day said they couldn’t work out whether I was left-wing or right-wing. I take that as a compliment. I don’t have any loyalty to either. In practice I may be slightly right-leaning, but – no matter what the ideology attatched – if something maximizes and balances everyone’s liberty, is fair and is democratic, I will support it.

PS Something rather amusing is that even Wikipedia editors have their own ideologies (or “Wikilosophies”), like “inclusionism“, and “deletionism“.