Cosy little book circle

It is not often that we get a fresh thought on cultural matters, so Jason Cowley deserves to be congratulated on his article about the poor condition of British fiction ("Blame it on Amis, Barnes and McEwan", 4 June).

In it, he accuses me of irrationality in attacking the mediocrity of so much fiction, though, perhaps just a little oddly, then goes on to agree with virtually every word. What was he up to? Cue a sentence to be treasured. Marr's views, he said, "ought not detain us for too long - because he has never exhibited an active, rigorous engagement with modern British fiction, as either a critic or a writer of fiction".

There's the rub. His complaint was not the critique, but that someone outside the circle of self-appointed books-page chaps dared speak. It was, in fact, a squeak of outrage in a demarcation dispute, an official complaint from the Victoria Station branch of the Amalgamated Union of Pot-Boilers, Back-Scratchers and Allied Industries. "State of the novel? Geroff. That's our job, mate." So much for the poor old Common Reader.

Cowley is interesting despite himself, because his evident irritation highlights the narcotic and dispiriting effect of cultural specialisation, in which anyone who is to be taken seriously finds a niche - fiction, popular science, media studies, whatever - and sticks with it. Plenty of people a lot more talented and interesting than I am have suffered from this narrow-minded, rather jobsworth approach. I don't think it adds to the gaiety of the nation, but at least we have the thing out in the open.

Andrew Marr
London SW14

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, There are years of fun to come

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.