Monday, 19 March 2012

Chesterton, inevitability, and the NHS

In his book on Eugenics (chill out, he thinks it's a Bad Thing, albeit for some slightly weird reasons), G K Chesterton, never a modest man, has a crack at identifying the overarching themes of different eras. The Middle Ages, was all about 'building and planning, dividing this from that by walls and fences'; the seventeenth century was about fear and panic, and the eighteenth century was all about 'tidying up'. He admits to being less confident in ascertaining the defining characteristic age, but goes on to suggest one regardless: inevitability. It used to be, he says, that as much political energy went into repealing laws as went into making them; now that's different, and once a law has been made we give it up for lost. People at the time were sad that universal education had been introduced (the horror!), and that America had been allowed its independence (the calamity!), but no one talked seriously about undoing what had been done, however vigorously they had campaigned against its being done in the first place. Chesterton argues that this sense of inevitability is to do with our corporate inability to admit mistakes. We would rather forget the past than admit we might have screwed it up. We no longer believe that we can change the past by rewriting history or the statute books, and so we just pretend it never happened.

I've been thinking about this in light of all the recent argy-bargy about the NHS bill (unlike universal education and the emancipation of the USA, this one is BAD). A lot of the force of the argument for opposing it has been that if we don't act now, it will be too late. And maybe that's true. There's certainly no sign that the railways will be unprivatised, even though 51% of people in Britain would support it and the whole thing is such a mess that surely even capitalists can't think it's worked out well for us. I can't remember the last time any significant bill was repealed. But why? Is Chesterton right? Or is there something else going on?

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