THE politics of envy: you might, if of a certain age, remember the phrase.
The Tories used to throw it at us if we ever happened to mention that inequality is not, in fact, an act of God. We were guilty of a deadly sin just for saying that money and opportunity were the results of a fix. We were churlish, too, and presumed to be too thick to grasp the import of a good old Anglo-Saxon word.
I've met a lot of toffs and never managed to envy one. Once the private schools, absent parents, family lawyers, trust funds and Oxbridge have done their work only husks of almost-people remain. They go through the emotional motions and miss the point of being alive. They burrow into their money instead, for warmth, poor sods.
The best answer to the charge of envy was one of those slogans calculated to infest the dreams of merchant bankers everywhere: eat the rich. A lot of gristle is involved, but the symbolism is satisfying. Plus, you become a friend of the environment. You have rid the world of a parasite. And, as a bonus, they think you're kidding.
The new generation of feral Tories have lost none of the cunning of their Thatcherite forebears. They have worked out that you can make just about anyone envious of just about everyone. You have a job? Lucky b******. You have a secure job? You're pushing your luck. You have a secure job with a fully-funded pension scheme to which you contribute mightily? You're a greedy b******.
The word greed in relation to NHS doctors comes from the Government, not from me. They invoke, in good Tory style, the politics of envy where pensions are concerned in a pensionless world. How dare a medic expect to retire on 53 grand when most of us will never dream of aspiring to such an income? When the rest of us are flat broke, that is unfair, surely?
But how come? Four years ago, 104,000 members of the British Medical Association did a deal with their employers. That would be us. The GPs had seen their real-terms income decline for years. They had the ability – if only we all had that ability – to claw something back. So they provide a service that is, say all the polls, valued universally. Now the Government wishes to renege while depicting the disagreement as a moral argument. According to the Coalition, those doctors are greedy.
So here's a challenge. Let a Government minister come forward to say that the pension arrangements for a group of public-sector workers are miserably insulting. Let me hear one among the faceless say that, in fact, some pensions are lousy and will be increased forthwith, because it's the least we can do. You will have observed that this never, ever happens.
Instead, you are told that workers in the private sector have no access to those "gold-plated" pensions. No-one delves into the history of that fact. Instead, the logic – we'll call it logic – says that teachers, nurses, admininstration workers and GPs have to be as impoverished as the rest of us in the abused name of fairness. It has become, if you like, a form of reverse class envy. He has a pension, but I don't: b******.
What's a doctor worth? The question is rhetorical only because I can't put a market value on public health. I can think, though, of a couple of people who are still alive because of competent GPs. So what's that worth? In the United States, where "socialised medicine" has become confused with the end of days, the answer would run into millions.
I envy the advertised pensions of family doctors. The London government wants me to be envious. Thanks to that envy they can, they hope, breach another bulwark. While we're all busy being jealous of one another, they can go on laying waste to the belief that the state should provide, and society should decide. This isn't about doctors. This is about the idea that a public service is worth protecting.
Once upon a time, when typing for money was better paid, I used to measure myself against my GP. It seemed like a decent way to count money. He got paid to lecture me on my bad habits; I got paid to explain, among other things, why the NHS mattered. Daft, of course. I've never saved a life or delivered a child; he could barely write his own name. That we were "fellow professionals", with bits of paper to prove it, was neither here nor there.
So should I be envious of that GP's pension? Andrew Lansley, the Tory Health Minister with many friends in the private sector, says that I should. He says that if a family doctor works until he or she is 68 – as though this happens – a 68K pension will follow. Lansley makes great play of the word "generous". He also mentions that elusive creature, "the taxpayer".
Imagine if they allowed you to decide what became of your taxes. Your first choice might involve, I submit, the banking sector. Over the past four years – not that you got a vote – half a trillion pounds in magic money has gone to that cause. Bundles went in bonuses. They have, meanwhile, spent £50 billion in Afghanistan, more in Iraq, and intend to spend the same again on ensuring the disgusting potency of some submarines.
And so on. I labour the point only to illuminate the notion of what is "affordable" in a country with a budget problem. We made a deal with doctors. They are asking, insisting, that we stick to our end of the bargain. Unless I misunderstand them, they are also reminding us that the NHS was born of bargains. The Tories still don't believe there is such a thing as society. The rest of us are being asked to decide whether anyone, in public service, has any right to a pension.
I don't have one. I have been in the free market ever since I gave up being a hospital porter in favour of daylight, but I never got around to personal "provisions". I shall therefore work, in a properly Tory way, until I drop. But I am not envious of doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers or any honest professional. To fall for that line would be to fall for the Tories being Tories. And I wasn't raised to be stupid.
Once they have culled the GPs, they'll come for the rest. They already assume you understand that a pension is "a luxury", that in private employment you can expect nothing, that the state will not provide for old age, that envy is your only consolation. What became, then, of our welfare state? Who gave it away? When was the vote taken?
Most of the doctors I ever knew were toffs. Even in times past, the commonality couldn't afford the expenses of a medical training. For all that, almost every doctor I ever met subscribed to the Greek word, ethos. They believed that the NHS was a contract. Even when they had not heard of Rousseau – for medics don't read much – they understood it as a social contract.
Those are the things you stand behind.
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