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4 November 2017

The NHS under the Tories won’t die with a bang, but fade away with a whimper

Over the next few years, without anybody really noticing, GPs will start charging for some services.

By Peter Wilby

One more term of Tory government after this should be enough to see off the NHS. It will not collapse overnight and ministers will not announce its abolition. Rather, it will go the way of dental services, where more and more practitioners went private until, in some areas, it has become almost impossible to find an NHS dentist.

In a few days, a doctors’ conference will debate a motion calling on the British Medical Association to consider how GPs “can be supported… within a private, alternative model”. Nothing may come of this motion, and doctors won’t walk out en masse. But some time over the next few years, without anybody really noticing, significant numbers of GPs will start to charge for at least some services. The numbers will grow, as will the charges. The NHS will not die with a bang but fade away with a whimper.

Male misbehaviour

Though the Sun claimed an exclusive on the “sex pest dossier” of Tory MPs, I had read nearly all the details in the Times the previous day. The latter quickly moved on, reporting that the list had “swelled to 45 names” while the Sun still had the number at 36. It wasn’t always like this. Traditionally, upmarket newspapers didn’t break stories about the sexual behaviour of prominent people. They left the tabloids to make the running and joined in only when a story came close to causing resignations and ruined careers. Now the Guardian and Times – and, across the Atlantic, the New York Times and New Yorker – are among the publications to which female actors and politicians’ staff confide their secrets and, sometimes, reveal their full stories in extended interviews and articles.

You may see this as an example of how the posh papers have gone downmarket, taking their eyes off important subjects such as Brexit and Universal Credit to expose wandering male hands at Tory conference dinners. But I suspect that, for many women, it is a liberation. Once, if they wished to expose sexual misbehaviour, only the tabloids would listen and, being instinctively misogynist, these papers would turn the story into one where the complainants appeared as sluts or prudes. Now male sexual behaviour has become a public issue, as worthy of the Times’s front page as the Sun’s, and rightly so. If one of the purposes of upmarket journalism is to expose abuse of power, this example has been neglected for too long.

The grassy knoll

Ping! Here comes another email from a conspiracy theorist. The latest release of files concerning President Kennedy’s assassination prompted a spate of them. The files give no support to claims that, behind the murder, lurked one or more of the CIA, the FBI, the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson, Senator Ted Cruz’s father, and shape-shifting alien lizards on the grassy knoll in Dallas. But that just confirms the thoroughness of the cover-up.

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Theories about who was responsible for 9/11 – obviously not Islamist lunatics piloting hijacked planes, you credulous fool – also continue to flourish. Those who believe the Iraq weapons inspector David Kelly did not commit suicide in 2003 but was murdered in a government plot show no signs of giving up. On the contrary, their conviction has just been strengthened by reports that Kelly’s family had his body moved because the grave was continually festooned with placards demanding a new inquiry.

The plot to cover up the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is still going strong after more than 400 years. The other day, Alexander Waugh, grandson of the novelist Evelyn Waugh, outlined some impenetrable theory that involves a secret code in a 1609 edition of the sonnets.

Still, one should keep an open mind. The usual objection to conspiracies is that they require implausible numbers of people to cover them up and/or remain silent. But didn’t something like that happen over Harvey Weinstein’s alleged assaults? Perhaps I should pay more attention to those emails.

Universities challenged

Top universities, we are told, do their best to recruit more students from under-represented groups such as whites from poor homes and blacks of Caribbean heritage. The University of Bristol makes “contextual offers” – for example, requiring A-level grades of ABB rather than AAA – to applicants from schools or colleges in the bottom 40 per cent nationally for A-level results or progression to higher education.

I am astonished to discover that Reigate College is one such school. Reigate is in leafy Surrey. Its median annual income is around £30,000. Less than 2 per cent of its population is black. The sixth form college has been rated “outstanding” by Ofsted since 2005. Nearly half its pupils go on to higher education. Its A-level scores are a trivial 1 per cent below the national average. Shouldn’t Bristol re-calculate its figures or re-think its criteria? How many other top universities’ schemes for reaching deprived groups are flawed in this way?

When I was an ignorant oik

British universities, I fear, have never got the hang of positive discrimination. Though it wasn’t then explicit, I was an early beneficiary. In 1963, I applied to the University of Sussex, then fashionable in the more liberal public schools, to study history. After my interview, the university wrote to my grammar school head teacher saying that, while I showed promise, I was an ignorant oik who should broaden his reading rather than waste time on A-levels. They required me to get just two E grades.

Though my mother was a school kitchen assistant and there were few books in the home, my father, a works manager, counted as lower middle-class and we lived in a detached suburban house. But at least, while my friends sweated over exam revision, I could read War and Peace and acquaint myself with Joseph Conrad.

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over