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This is one reason why the Iraq war – officially finished 15 months ago – still dominates British politics and why Tony Blair’s repeated hopes of “moving on” and getting back to the “domestic agenda” are repeatedly disappointed. Plans for greater “choice in education and health are just the latest attempts to divert attention from the disgrace of Iraq. But, still, they do outline the planned future of our social services and must be taken seriously.
We are offered more choice. As Veronica Beechey writes (see “Spoiling for choice“), who could possibly be against that? Only bossy know-all authoritarians, surely? No wonder both Blair and Michael Howard are making choice their election slogan for the future of health and education. It sounds so good. Ironically, though, since they are both offering us the same thing, or variants of the same idea, they are not giving us much of a choice.
Many people, not only on the left, are suspicious of this glib, plausible rhetoric – and rightly so. It conceals some very damaging plans from both leaders for the public sector.
The talk about “choice” in health provision is largely a distraction. It is designed to conceal the fact that what is planned is even greater reliance on private health provision. The Tories are pretty open about this. Labour is, as usual, more evasive.
Nor is there any evidence that people are particularly concerned about choice in health provision. What most people want is very clear and simple. They want their local surgeries and hospitals to be good and efficient.
To be offered the option of admission to a good hospital 40 miles away because the one down the road is second-rate is not a real choice. It is a feeble attempt to compensate for the failure to achieve improvement across the whole public system.
When it comes to education, especially schools, the talk of choice is worse than a distraction. It is a fraud. We get to choose between a struggling secondary school and one with a high reputation, or even, in the Tory plans, a private fee-paying school. Of course, the better schools will not be able to take in all those who want to attend them. So, they will operate a system of selection. In effect, we will be back with the 11-plus. Comprehensive schools will cease to exist. The secondary modern will be re-born. That is what “choice” means for the secondary school system. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Of course, there does need to be choice within schools and colleges. As Beechey and Marian Barnes point out, much more could be done to involve both patients and health workers in improving public services. The health service, for example, could be more flexible and responsive to patient needs, wishes and anxieties than it often is.
Different educational paths should be open to children and students with different talents and aspirations. But the only paths this government has opened up are those that suit employers. They have pushed the national curriculum so hard that many options have either been marginalised or have disappeared altogether. Look at the decline of music in schools, despite its official place within the curriculum. This impoverishment of young people’s lives and horizons has become a national scandal.
Behind the smooth talk of choice, what is being proposed is more privatisation and more commercialisation. Notice that in Wales and Scotland Labour is not moving down this slippery slope. There, the policy is to improve and expand public and free provision, not to introduce more fees and charges. The radical challenge of Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Socialists pulls Labour back towards its old principles. It is the lack of such a magnetic force in England that gives Blair his chance to press ahead with the erosion of the welfare state.
But for many of us the Iraq war and the lies used to justify it will be the deciding factor at the forthcoming general election, and we will be supporting candidates that have honourable, anti-war records – whatever their party.
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