Andrew Lansley’s discredited health reforms, Wilde’s mass appeal and why hell must exist

Former health secretary Lansley overlooked his £1.5bn “costly diversion” as he criticised later cuts to the NHS.

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There is no limit to the egotism of politicians. If they don’t make it to prime minister, they strive to leave behind them some signal achievement in one of the departments of state. Andrew Lansley’s monument was supposed to be the Health and Social Care Act 2012, introducing a new era in which GPs took control and drove the NHS towards high productivity and efficiency. It cost £1.5bn and was later described by the King’s Fund, the health think tank, as “a costly diversion”, leading to “a top-down reorganisation that has been damaging and distracting”.

Lansley, who left the health department in 2012 after almost the entire NHS workforce had lost confidence in him, has now been diagnosed with bowel cancer; after an operation, he is undergoing chemotherapy. Had it not been for Treasury cuts in 2014, he writes in the Daily Telegraph, his condition would have been diagnosed sooner. The cuts hit “bowelscope”, a screening programme for over-55s, which Lansley announced in 2010. By now, it should have been available nationally. Instead, thanks mainly to shortages of qualified staff, it covers only half the relevant population.

One is bound to sympathise with Lansley and wish him well in fighting the disease. One is bound also to welcome any admission by a Tory that cuts do affect services. But nowhere in his article does Lansley mention the 2012 act, still less acknowledge that, without its costs, more money might have been available for bowelscope. He wants us to forget his discredited legislative monument and fix our minds instead on another monument: screening that will ultimately, he says, save 3,000 lives a year. But with the post-Lansley NHS apparently in permanent disarray, those 3,000 survivors could soon die of something else.

Hell to pay

Hell doesn’t exist, the Pope has ruled. When they die, unrepentant sinners just disappear. As an atheist, I find this more implausible than the traditional hellfire and brimstone. Dictators always inflict unpleasant punishments on people they don’t like. Why would an omnipotent creator act differently? If Pope Francis wants to craft a gentler Catholicism, he should ponder the old Jewish joke that, when we die, we all go to the same place where we must attend everlasting Bible classes. For the righteous, this would be eternal bliss, for the wicked, eternal suffering. Personally, I would be content provided it were the King James Bible, not one of those newfangled American versions.

Lost and found

The crime writer Philip Kerr, who has died aged 62, was for three years an excellent film critic for the NS. But my most vivid memory is of a column that prompted the biggest postbag of my seven-year editorship. Reviewing a film adaptation of E Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, starring Kevin Spacey, he described Newfoundland, the Canadian island where the novel and film were set, as “a place so dull that even Canadians… make jokes about it”. The “inert qualities and lack of conversation” of Spacey’s character Quoyle marked him out “as a typical Newfie”.

A radio station alerted some 500,000 Newfoundlanders to these and other insults, urging them to protest, which they did in their thousands. We printed several letters and that was that. But social media was then in its infancy. I often wonder if Kerr’s writing career could have survived a full beasting on Facebook and Twitter.

Bowled over

Unlike everybody else, I see a positive side to the Australian ball-tampering affair in South Africa, where the Aussies have just lost the Test series 3-1. Throughout history, bowlers, the proletarians of cricket, originally drawn from the servant class, have been accused of cheating. They bend their elbows too much (which counts as throwing), they intimidate batsmen by bowling too short and fast, they intimidate umpires by appealing too much, they sneakily overstep the mark from which they should bowl. And they are repeatedly accused of using grease, earth or fingernails to make the ball deviate in the air or off the pitch.

In South Africa, however, three batsmen got the blame and were duly sent home. One apparently bought sandpaper, a second used it to rough up the ball, a third as captain allegedly approved it.

After England used “bodyline” bowling against the Australians in 1932-33, the fast bowler Harold Larwood never played for his country again. The batsman Douglas Jardine, who as captain ordered him to bowl at Australian bodies, went on to lead England that summer and in India the following winter. Now Steve Smith, batsman and Australian captain, is banned for a year while no charge is levelled against any bowler. That is progress of a sort.

Song and dance

Jennifer Saunders wrote and played a leading character in Absolutely Fabulous, the TV series that satirised celebrity culture. Now she is herself a celebrity used to attract the masses to Oscar Wilde’s work. In Lady Windermere’s Fan at London’s Vaudeville Theatre, she plays the Duchess of Berwick. Between acts, while the scenery is changed, Saunders leads a rather risqué song and dance routine in front of the curtain. This was inserted, the director Kathy Burke explains, because the Duchess doesn’t appear in the play’s second half and “I didn’t want to short-change the audience, who… are very excited to see… Saunders.”

I was ready to purse my lips in an elitist kind of way, along with several reviewers of the play. But then I thought about how Oscar Wilde himself was not above borrowing from the conventions of Victorian melodrama which, in its original form, used music and song. He would have had something to say about celebrity culture, to be sure, but I suspect he would have approved of Burke’s little interlude.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire