The sting in the Mistry tale

The dogmatic free-market policies of economist Percy Mistry threaten universal healthcare in Mauriti

When my family and I were on an extended stay in Mauritius I was stung on the hand by a hornet after I accidentally disturbed a nest hanging from a tree in the garden of the house where we were living.

By evening the problem seemed to be getting worse rather than better and I was advised by some of my in-laws - my wife is Mauritian - not to wait another night but to go to the local hospital for help.

After a brief wait I saw a doctor, was treated and quickly recovered from the sting.

Now, all of this was free. I didn't have to pay anything for the treatment or the medicine because the type of healthcare provided in Mauritius is a universal state provision which, to some extent, took its lead from the British National Health Service.

Fourteen years on from the hornet's assault, I fear for the future of the Mauritian system which is under siege from ex-World Bank economist Percy Mistry – he's advising that country's government to take a radically new approach to healthcare and welfare provision.

Some of Mistry’s points about the general economic context are undoubtedly well made: the end of subsidies on sugar and the phasing out of textile quotas in key markets like Europe means that Mauritius faces some serious challenges in generating income in the new global economy.

He quite rightly notes that no country is owed a living just because it has nice beaches and the sun shines a lot.

But Mistry is convinced that the real problem for Mauritius is that it continues to follow a European "socialist" style system.

He uses the word "sclerotic" to describe the economies of the countries that make up the EU - something of a surprise to those of us who live here in the UK where there are only 2.5% classified as unemployed, the lowest since 1975.

He contrasts the European model unfavourably with the American free-market system which he thinks is far more dynamic and competitive (he also likes the Chinese and Indian economies for similar reasons) although it is noteworthy that he fails to say anything about the US budget or balance of payments deficits and the problems with healthcare.

He recently told the Mauritian paper L'Express: "Europe really believes in trying to equalise everything and rips you off in taxation to provide universalism in the name of equity."

Mistry advises the Mauritian government to dismantle many aspects of the health and welfare system in the country - or "wasteful public expenditure, " as he puts it

"You [must] get rid of this notion that everything should be universalised for everybody -- that everybody should have free education, free health, free transport," he argues.

Gung ho free marketeers like Mistry often miss the point about economic and social change partly because they tend to be well insulated from the effects of policies they advocate.

Mainly, though, their error falls in a commitment to a particular theoretical framework which means they are often so obsessed with wealth creation they fail to understand the issue of social solidarity and, ultimately, therefore what makes a functioning society tick.

At the time of my experience with the hornet, I was reminded of a book I was obliged to read as part of my university course, The Gift Relationship: from Human Blood to Social Policy by the late Richard Titmuss, then Professor of Social Administration at the London School of Economics. (He also advised the first Mauritian government led by Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam on population policy and family planning amongst other things.)

The book was first published in 1971 and has had a huge influence on government policy and the academic community in the UK (and, to some extent, in the US). Titmuss’ thesis on blood donation contrasted the American system, where blood donors were often paid for their services, with the British system where people donated their blood for nothing (although they were and still are given tea and biscuits afterwards).

Titmuss concluded that the latter system was more efficient because not only was more blood wasted in American hospitals compared to British ones but that, more importantly, blood purchased from poorer American donors was more likely to be contaminated with Hepatitis B because many donors were drug users and were only interested in the money they would receive rather than their contribution to their nation's health.

The book was written, of course, before the era of HIV infection.

As well as producing a specific analysis of blood donations, Titmuss was also trying to make a bigger point. For him, the contrasting practices around blood donations in the UK and US were indicative of two very different types of systems of healthcare.

The first based on private and commercial forms of care, the second based on altruism and public service. He considered that the British system was ethically superior because it generated a sense of mutual responsibility and social solidarity amongst all citizens, rich or poor.

Although Titmuss is not much talked about now, his influence has been long-lasting because he helped shape the British (and Mauritian) welfare system. In the UK recent governments of all persuasion - left and right - accept that some services are best provided on a collective basis and some best left to the private sector (although there is healthy disagreement about the precise details especially when public-private partnerships are involved).

But I was interested recently to read two related stories about this subject published over a couple of days. The first was announcement by David Cameron's Conservatives for the roll-out of a dedicated maternity nurse service to help every new mother in her home for up to six hours a day during the baby's first week of life.

The idea, based on a policy initiated in the Netherlands, is to give every child the best possible start as well as supporting families as they begin a new phase in life.

The second story was that Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, now backs proposals for a universal care plan for all of his state’s citizens. In the present US system not having health insurance can be a matter of life and death.

It seems that even centre-right parties in both the UK and US can believe that the state shouldn’t remain neutral in matters of child and family welfare and healthcare.

And I can only hope that Mauritius's government realises a free-market ideology shouldn’t be the one that they adopt.

After all, institutions like education and healthcare in Mauritius have contributed to the success and solidarity of the country and should be preserved for the sake of future generations.

A version of this article can been found on the Mauritian newspaper L'Express website.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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