The problem with political shorthand, or how green is the Green Belt?

Business Insider recently put together a great set of aerial photographs of the Green Belt around London, perhaps more accurately described as the “Green” Belt because – as the photographs vividly demonstrate – much of it is not very green at all.

Part of the not-so-green Green Belt around London. Photo from Business Insider / Google Maps

Part of the not-so-green Green Belt around London. Photo from Business Insider / Google Maps

However for all the inaccuracies and misconceptions bundled up the phrase “the Green Belt”, it’s a powerful piece of political rhetoric. Objecting to plans to build on the Green Belt invoke just the sort of instinctive reactions that objectors want.

It makes for potent political shorthand, even when it is misleading. Shorthand is a necessary part of life. It’s often a convenient way of summarising something, and indeed most of the Green Belt is of the form that gives its name a good rationale.

Problems start when shorthand turns into shouty slogans used to curtail debate and derail ideas regardless of merit.  Shorthand becomes not a shortcut to nuanced points but a dead-end.

This often happens with the NHS. Privatisation. It’s evil isn’t it? Except what are GPs? They’re not on the public sector payroll. GPs are running in effect small (and not so small) private businesses which contract to the NHS to provide services. Private businesses where six figure salaries abound.

Right at the heart of the NHS that those chanting about the evils of privatisation profess to love is, well, a huge network of private enterprises with very highly paid staff.

That of course doesn’t suddenly make any new role for private companies necessarily good. But it also illustrates how (apart from a few hardcore left-wingers who, to their credit, do want full direct state control of all GPs) most of those declaiming the evils of private providers having a role in the NHS are actually not wanting anything of the sort at all.

But when they use such inaccurate sloganeering in an attempt to demonise others, they cut off decent debate – and that is no way to get the best NHS possible.

Yet sadly the debate over such issues is so heavily poisoned that there’s a good chance if you’re reading this you’ve thought that I must have some secret privatisation agenda I’m trying to provide polite cover for.

Well, sort of. Because I quite like the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto’s section on health policy. Although it’s often invoked in opposition to what has happened in this Parliament, it was by no means blindly anti-private provision:

Sharply reducing centralised targets and bureaucracy, replacing them with entitlements guaranteeing that patients get diagnosis and treatment on time. If they do not, the NHS will pay for the treatment to be provided privately.

I like that policy for two reasons. First, it prioritises the service the public receives. That’s what should come first with public services, not the means of delivery. Means of delivery are a means to an end, not the end in itself. Second, it means that the financial pressure in the NHS (and there will always be one) then becomes one of saving money by raising quality and speeding up services, thereby saving on funds to pay people to go private.

Neither of those points are specific to health care of course, and in fact in the Lib Dems this idea of ‘pay if you fail’ has its origins with Liberal Democrat councillors who got housing departments to agree to pay tenants to get repairs done privately if the council repairs service failed them.

But wider application of such policies (and of course the practicalities means this isn’t a magic one-size-fits-all wand to wave over the whole public sector) requires a willingness to stand up to the shouty slogans and instead stand up for excellent public services.