Friday in Parliament saw a sombre decision taken to initiate air strikes in Iraq , which united the political parties in the face of an overwhelming challenge which dwarfed any tribal differences. But few in that chamber would disagree that the biggest problem we face in tackling this global challenge is that we wouldn’t want to be starting from here.
The West’s panic stricken reaction, and lack of coherent strategy for the Middle East has helped create an appalling mess, for which there is no clear solution. This is a danger of constantly focusing on what you don’t want – Assad, ISIL… And not focusing on a strategy for achieving what you do want – whatever that may be for this historically tumultuous region.
As Party Conference season kicks off, we begin to see the same mistaken dynamic played out in miniature, domestically. Each party will stake out its plans focusing on its differences from the others.
The consensus is that Milliband seems to have blown a series of panic-stricken populist dog-whistles to try to regain his core vote, that add up to a discordant policy cacophony. There is nothing even approaching a coherent plan for the financial challenges still ahead of us.
UKIP, the national party for putting the world to rights over a pint, has done just that; rich on anger, short on anything to actually change the sources of that anger. The Lib Dems, well, er, maybe there will be a cake stall, people mutter.
Conservatives this week tell us they will be setting out their plan for the future, to cement the progress made, and looking pragmatically at how to continue to fix our country.
But despite the Conservatives’ welcome focus on pragmatism, all parties are missing the mark on what we really need. Just as we saw on the vote launching airstrikes on ISIL/ IS / ISIS (I wish they would decide on one name and stick to it) bring parties together in unity in the face of an overwhelming challenge internationally, so we need the same approach on some of our overwhelming challenges nationally.
Heading the challenges is how we can genuinely save the NHS: Not from ‘the other lot’, but from our, the nations’, ever growing demands onit, from an ever growing, ever aging, ever iller, ever more entitlement-focused population. This is a tidal wave charging towards our public services, which requires consensus, not differences, to solve.
Perhaps for the past decades we could afford to put meeting this inevitable challenge in Charles Clarke’s “Too Difficult Box”. But that time has run out. Either politics stops seeing the NHS as a political tool (demonstrated most starkly by Alex Salmond, in trying to claim voting Yes was going to ‘save’ his own devolved NHS, at the same time as reducing healthcare spending) and starts seeing it for what it is – a system of healthcare. Or politics will have to explain to our grandchildren why it put its own electoral interests ahead of ensuring they have an NHS free at point of use, whenever they need it.
I was sent a invitation from an eager Labour opponent, who seems to have studied the ‘Westminster Bubble Manual’ of ‘How to be a Politician’ with touching diligence. His request in itself was a perfect illustration of how politics has exploited the NHS to make it a pre-election tool to scrap over, instead of focusing on actually ensuring it works for the future. He wanted me to debate the NHS “along the lines of the debates with Salmond and Darling” I would certainly welcome any genuine positive suggestions that even begin to scratch the surface of the challenge ( increasing NHS spending by around the rate of inflation, and by less than the coalition already has, I’m afraid doesn’t count) but perpetuating the behaviour that landed us in this mess is not the way to begin to save our NHS for future generations. Unsurprisingly, he has been a bit reluctant to publish my reply to him.
It is true, I have very deep anger over the way Labour ran the NHS, and how their obsession with political expediency and targets led to the appalling scandals such as that at Mid Staffs. I also know many of those in Labour are angry at the way Conservatives have run the NHS. But in meeting our duties to preserve the NHS free at the point of use, based on need, for our grandchildren, we have to put all that anger behind us, to concentrate on the future and find agreement on how to do this.
People are get increasingly fed up with establishment parties pre-occupied on finding differences with each other and not working to find common ground to sort out the problems we all universally face. Inflaming confrontation and face-scratching as soon as anyone begins to tackle the big, real issues may be what the “Westminster Bubble Manual” demands, but it is not what the country wants or needs.
As Manifesto writing begins in earnest, we should re-write what a Manifesto is for. In the face of enormous domestic and international challenges, the parties should first find what they can agree upon: including a core set of actions to preserve our NHS , free at point of use when our grandchildren actually *need* it. If this proves impossible, a shared acknowledgement of the kind of measures that might be needed, and the remit of what difficult discussions might have to happen, would be a start. Then the parties can distinguish themselves by the detail of how they would accomplish this agreed core.
Re-setting what political parties in a democratic system have become? Yes. Difficult? Yes. To be relegate to the “Too Difficult box”? I hope not. Because if we really want to manage our international threats, and resolve national challenges like how my hypothetical grandchildren can get care free at point of use when they need it, the “too difficult box” needs to be opened and politicians of all parties need to be big and brave and grown-up enough to do it.