A cauliflower, Mark Twain once observed, is nothing but a cabbage with a college education. It may have virtues that a cabbage lacks: a crunchier texture, perhaps, or a greater appeal to small children. But it is still, in essence, a cabbage and (barring genetically manipulated miracles) will always remain so. Can something similar be said of public services? Is Tony Blair, in his attempts to reform them, guilty of what the philosophers would call a category error? Is he, to continue the horticultural metaphors, trying to turn a carrot into a peach?
These questions are rarely asked because our debates on public services muddle so many different issues: the use of private finance for capital projects; the provision of particular services by private firms; the introduction of competition and choice to the public sector; the freedom of individual schools and hospitals to go their own way and possibly borrow money privately; the imposition of charges. "Privatisation" becomes an all-embracing label, and the most important issue of all - what we want from public services - gets lost.
Mr Blair's own ambition is clear. "Just as mass production has departed from industry," he told the Labour conference, "so the monolithic provision of services has to depart from the public sector." People want an individual service, he argues, allowing them, for example, to book a hospital operation at a time of their own choosing. This no doubt strikes chords with television viewers, but Mr Blair must know perfectly well that bespoke services usually come at a premium price. Nobody expects a bus to turn up at a time of the individual's choosing as a privately ordered taxi would. Indeed, the analogy in Mr Blair's speech seems at least partially mistaken. Industrial mass production may have declined, but mass services have not. Few people now have their clothes made to order. Personal services in all except the most expensive hotels have declined sharply. People flock in their millions to Ikea, and its cheap, standardised units. Supermarkets may seem to offer choice, but much of it is illusory since the fruit and vegetables are all of uniform, flavourless quality, and most of the smaller shops that once offered alternative sources of food supply have been driven out of business.
The difficulty with offering choice and individual attention is that it requires the maintenance of spare capacity. You can always get a porter in a posh hotel, because it will have several standing around doing nothing. This is not regarded as inefficient because customers are willing to pay the costs (including heavy tips) of maintaining these employees. Is the taxpayer willing to finance similar slack in the public sector? Governments have prattled for 20 years about providing more choice of schools. All they have achieved, particularly in the cities, is an increase in parental frustration because what are seen as the best schools so quickly fill up. Faced with spare capacity in education, governments, far from using it to extend choice, have shut it down as rapidly as possible.
The point of public services is that they provide to all, at low cost (mainly through taxes), what otherwise might be available only to some, at high cost. Treating everybody alike, rich or poor, powerful or not, is precisely what they are supposed to do. To expect them to offer individualised services is, to some extent, to defeat the object, to expect a carrot to offer the sweet juice of a peach. Let them become better at mass production - so that hospitals at least carry out operations when they say they will and parents can find a decent school near home and everybody can get to see an NHS dentist - before they start trying anything more fancy.
Major and the New Statesman
On 29 January 1993, the New Statesman published an article headed: "The curious case of John Major's 'mistress'". It reported a widespread rumour - which, in the form of sly innuendo, had reached some newspaper diaries - that the then prime minister was having an affair with a caterer called Clare Latimer. The rumour was wholly false. The New Statesman argued that the article had made this clear; Mr Major and Ms Latimer argued that it had not, and sued for libel. The settlement involved only a small payment directly to the plaintiffs. But the magazine had to meet substantial legal costs as well as libel damages paid by its printers and distributors, who were also sued. The burden, running well into six figures, brought it very close to bankruptcy.
The revelation from Edwina Currie that she had a four-year affair with Mr Major before he became prime minister puts the case in an entirely new light. The allegation of an affair with Ms Latimer remains untrue. But a libel action for damages presupposes that damage has been done. If it had then been known that Mr Major was an adulterer, who had already cheated on his wife, he could hardly have claimed that the New Statesman had damaged him. Moreover, Ms Latimer's own statements in recent days suggest that she herself might have ignored the article if Mr Major had not pressed her to sue.
The NS will now consider whether it can reclaim from Mr Major the money it paid out, along with any interest that might have accrued. Whatever the merits of the original article - published under a different editor - nobody should doubt that we are right to do so.
This is the third time in a decade that a leading politician has taken libel action against the press on what has turned out to be at least a partially false basis. The press is frequently accused of being sanctimonious, arrogant and deceitful. Readers can judge for themselves who most deserves these adjectives.