The Care Blunder

26/05/2017 12:10

The need for Jekyll and Hyde.

Rather disappointingly Hegel never actually said "thesis, antithesis and then synthesis" but you can see a good illustration of the idea in Mrs May's political approach. Start with the thesis - the gradual increase in state provision control, which began with the foundation of the National Health Service just after the war and had, by the late 1970s, exhausted itself, the tendency towards increased nationalisation becoming a serious sclerosis in the arteries of the economy. Then the antithesis. An electorate, who had had about enough of it all by then, voted for Mrs Thatcher in 1979, giving her a mandate to roll back the frontiers of the state. Nationalisation became "oh so yesterday" as many of the nationalised industries were moved back into the private sector. Private enterprise became the universal solution, even to the problems of delivering public services. "Leave it to the market; that will sort out the problems."

Yet again the wave recedes, and now Mrs May dictates a Conservative manifesto which deliberately eschews a general philosophy. The new approach is a synthesis, designed to take the best from both traditions, harnessing the entrepreneurial force of private enterprise while using the power of the state to do good. It all sounds very attractive, just the type of practical and dogma-free approach which the British public like. It is also very difficult to implement.

Those who espouse a particular political philosophy have guidelines to follow. Most socialists would admit that there are areas which should be left to private enterprise, but in matters close to the public well-being will default in favour of management by the state. Tories will see state involvement as undermining efficiency and freedom, even while accepting the need for it in certain areas. Both groups know where they default to, but if you're somewhere in the middle you have to use your own judgement on every issue.

By focusing on a particular segment of the population rather than on a philosophy, Mrs May has opted for a stony path. Quite apart from the difficulties of Brexit, she is determined to introduce reforms, reforms guided by what works in particular cases rather than a dogmatic approach. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but if she is to make a success of it she will have to draw on the experience of those around her. Here she has had a nasty lesson.

The manifesto commitment under which the costs of long-term care were to have been recovered from so much of an individual's estate as exceeded £100,000 were bound to be hugely unpopular. That is not because the charge would be seen as unfair; but rather because of its unpredictability. Someone who died suddenly could pass his or her assets down the family, subject only to the exigencies of inheritance tax. A neighbour who had worked just as hard and amassed just as much but was unfortunate enough to suffer from dementia would see all they had built (above of course the £100,000) eaten up by social care costs. What a lottery. If there is one thing that people really value it is predictability and the ability to plan. This levy would have hit them where it hurt and the fact that it would have been difficult to insure against the risk (because there was no limit) only made matters worse.

Mrs May has now said that there will be a cap, and quite right too. Perhaps there would have been one in any event once the government had consulted on the way in which the new scheme would work. That is as may be, but the proposals as originally put forward clearly broke the basic rule established by Jean Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister to Louis XIV, that "the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing." The best taxes are both reasonable and predictable and by missing the second point Mrs May has created hissing a plenty. Well, she has now changed her mind but the incident does say something about the difficulties she faces.

She would probably have avoided this mistake if she had consulted far more widely. If no one else, the Treasury Secretaries should have warned her that she was breaking a golden rule and of the likely consequences. However, she did not consult widely enough and so she slipped up. "Come, come, Theresa" you might say, "consult widely in the future and your touch will be surer." Unfortunately it is not quite as easy as that.

When it comes to conducting the Brexit negotiations, it is all the other way round. That difficult exercise has to be driven by the vision of one person, albeit with Parliament and the rest of the Cabinet being kept informed of developments. Here consulting too much would be a disaster. Imagine a committee trying to play a game of poker.

This creates an unusual difficulty for the Prime Minister. In pushing forward the social reforms in which she no doubt believes fervently, she should keep the consultation wide with a view to making use of all the expertise available. When she is dealing with the Brexit negotiations, however, she will need to be as close and unfathomable as an oyster. It will need to be an act worthy of Jekyll and Hyde, particularly where, as is inevitable, domestic policy and her Brexit position begin to overlap. No one could do it perfectly and there are bound to be mistakes along the way. No doubt most of us will decide whether to forgive these mistakes or not by reference to our own political loyalties. However that be, it is important that all of us understand why they will inevitably arise.

First published in the Shaw Sheet