Stand by. You’re about to get a shotgun blast of radical political thought right in your face. It’s because of ideas like this that people see me as such a dangerous voice. Buckle in tight: here goes.
OK: when the government thinks it might be a good idea to do something, what if, rather than just doing it, it tests if it will work first? Believe it or not, this used to be a thing. It was called “evidence-based policy”. Or to quote Chris Grayling in the House of Commons earlier this year: “The last government was obsessed with pilots. Sometimes you just have to believe in something and do it.”
He’s got a point. Only two weeks ago I used the Wild Herb sauce at Nando’s despite always just having the hot one and it was actually pretty good. But I don’t know: somehow I feel like the stakes were lower with that than, say, outsourcing most of the probation service, which is what he was talking about and which three probation trusts have just announced could risk lives. And I only put it on my chips.
That Grayling line is indicative of a new political culture - actually, I’m going to say it, it’s a right wing problem, and it stretches to its commentators as far as it does its politicians - which doesn’t bother with evidence. They all seem a bit like Stewart Lee’s taxi driver, wailing “You can prove anything with facts”, as they enact one allegedly “brave, bold” policy after another.
Take, for instance, the introduction of a £200 charge on all temporary migrants, such as overseas students, to use the NHS and a requirement for GPs to check the migration status of new patients. Think about (thanks to Nick Cohen for pointing this out) Theresa May’s justification on Radio 4: “People feel it is unfair that illegal immigrants can use services,” she said. They “feel it's too easy to stay here illegally”. They have the “feeling that people who are here illegally are accessing services”.
Of course, we don’t know how big a problem this is, really. An official report last week said that these “health tourists” cost £300m. Within a day, government-commissioned research showed twice as many foreign visitors pay to use the NHS as exploit free health care, while the UK is a net exporter of patients seeking treatment. This report said health tourists could cost between £60-80m - out of a budget of £95.6bn.
So the little evidence we have suggests it’s a small problem, and the only other thing we know is that some doctors worry the bill will make it “harder for vulnerable migrants in considerable need to access healthcare”. That’s pretty much the sum total of all our knowledge: but it’s an easy sell as far as Daily Mail splashes go. So we’re going for it. Political bravery there.
It’s all about noise. And it’s all about the right kind of noise. On 1 August the Home Office Twitter feed announced: “Home Office enforcement teams have arrested 139 immigration offenders after nationwide operations targeting illegal working and immigration abuse.” It also posted a load of pictures of brown people (faces blurred out) being slung in vans.
I sent a Freedom of Information request to the department to find out how many of these people were subsequently charged with immigration-related offences. I was told I couldn’t be given the information because it would be prejudicial to future cases. Which is kind of amazing. A faceless press officer can deem all those pictured on the feed to be guilty before charges have been pressed, but my request is possibly prejudicial. The wrong kind of noise.
And this culture goes so much further than the Home Office. Iain Duncan Smith’s entire time at the DWP can be summed up in two words: bullshit and bluster. So the Bedroom Tax isn’t actually achieving anything besides a few suicides? Never mind, just tell the House it’s a success and muddle through.
All you need is a bit of a belief. Then when the UK Statistics Authority tells you not to misuse official government statistics about the Benefit Cap, you can go on the Today programme with a straight face and say: “You can't disprove what I said.” Nice line. Mind you, if I were to proclaim he’s a shouty chancer who’s dragging his department from one calamity to another thanks to his credulous zealotry he couldn’t disprove that either.
But part of this is about keeping the weirdos on the Tory back bench happy. Of course the loudest voices on the political right are the emptiest of vessels, but that’s democracy. So our ministers have to occasionally pander to bloviating gas bags like Stewart Jackson MP, gabbling on Twitter about a non-existent £2bn being spent on health tourists, or Douglas Carswell MP, moaning about a non-existent “tsunami of economic refugees” putting a burden on the NHS.
Running across these jokers on social media is like dropping in on the minutes of a particularly pissed meeting of the Tunbridge Wells Rotary Club as they’re being updated in real time. Do we get the politicians we deserve? If so the people of Clacton must have done some pretty bad stuff in the past; maybe even worse than voting for Douglas Carswell.
It gets even better once the Cannon and Ball of pompous right wing rhetorical posturing - Toby Young and Dan Hannan MEP - get involved. The two of them have recently been having a go at National Institute of Economic and Social Research director Jonathan Portes. Portes had the temerity to point out the pair were talking balls about UK exports. In response Hannan gave us a blog about how Portes’s think tank was clearly pro-EU due to it receiving funding from that body (among others including, um, the UK Government). Among other errors, he cited a paper from the NIESR written in 2004 as evidence (written just the seven years before Portes joined).
Cue complaint to the PCC. Whoops! Way to disprove allegations of not doing your homework properly. But then you know facts and reason have gone out of the window by the point the school bullies’ sidekick feels he understands the debate enough to provide the dimmest input of the day.
There’s today’s conservative writers for you, right there. Not exactly Auberon Waugh, is it?
I’m sure to them this is going to be a “left-wing rant”. Well it’s not. I’ve got no problem with right-wing ideas, as long as they’re good. In fact, I’ve just written 2,000 favourable words about a Tory MP’s campaign. I’m just asking them to be less stupid. God I hate people.