Books of the year 2011: Alexandra Harris

Verdi and/or Wagner - Peter Conrad


It's been a great year for bringing statues to life. Peter Conrad's stupendous Verdi and/or Wagner (Thames & Hudson, £24.95) begins with busts of the two composers sitting quietly on pedestals in a garden in Venice. By the end of the book, those two stone heads have come to represent competing and equally mesmerising visions not just of music but of love, war, heroism - and life itself.

Shelley's Ghost (Bodleian Library, £19.99) by Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C Denlinger starts with the creepy memorial chamber in Oxford where a marble Shelley has been languishing naked since 1893; the ensuing exploration of rites and relics is stranger than many a supernatural ghost story. Like many, I'll be haunted for a long time to come by Cecil Valance and his memorials in Alan Hollinghurst's restless elegy The Stranger's Child (Picador, £20) and I've had the luxury of rereading Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, (Oxford World's Classics, £7.99), prompted by colleagues at the University of Liverpool who have organised a festival celebrating 400 years since Hermione's statue first spoke.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.