I don’t like arguing.
I used to. As a younger man, I enjoyed pointless debates about everything from the anachronism of royalty to how best to cope with a shark attack. As a teenager, I would argue about religion, the moral status of cows, the colour yellow, bread and the evil that is contemporary dance. It was exhausting but I was terribly earnest, debating the rights of cattle as if they were family members.
Later, we learn to shrug, don’t we? Not just about yellow but about god and meat, and even sometimes politics. Not because we don’t have beliefs but, perhaps because we are too busy to argue, we don’t always believe in the process or the parameters of the argument. Or the point of trying to alter opinions. Or even the people with whom we are expected to argue.
I think it probably counted as “good” politics when Andrew Lansley suggested that nurses may be opposing his health bill as a response to his government’s assault on their pensions rather than the fact that it was an unhelpful bill. It was a bit like turning up to work in a pair of ill-fitting hot pants and, when everyone pointed out that they really didn’t suit you, alleging that they were all just jealous.
But, as a piece of modern politics, one imagines Mr Lansley congratulated himself, because while it was offensive and crass and purposefully ignored the obvious fact that nobody likes it, it did manage to shift the debate away from the content and implications of the bill to the small-minded bitterness of staff.
Last week there was a summit meeting of 20 royal colleges. First, who knew there were that many royal colleges? Now that I know they are so common, I’m not sure I want one anymore. Second, do you think it was like a Jedi high council?
Third, isn’t it just a little bit of a shame that, instead of issuing a joint statement outlining collective concern over the health bill, the talk afterwards was of Mr Lansley’s comments?
While their repudiations were understandable, I suspect Mr Lansley was pleased to hear them. Because this government knows they don’t have to win arguments – they just need to make sure they get to choose what it is we argue about. Forcing people to defend themselves shifts the debate away from issues like equity in delivery, maintaining clinical standards and retaining consistent investment in service provision and on to how annoying staff can be. Control the parameters of exchange, and you control the politics.
It’s a bit like the argument about being attacked by a shark. Should I punch the shark on the nose? Stay perfectly still? Thrash about? Nope, it’s best to ensure if it attacks me it does so out of water, preferably on an escalator.
I look forward to the day when professional leaders stop feeling forced on to the defensive in the face of manipulative and flippant politicking and instead draw their own battle lines. Because what are we arguing about? Is it really as Mr Lansley suggests – that nurses are sulking (might it be their hormones, the little dears?) and cannot see reason when he offers it to them? Such nonsense is beneath us. Or is it that this Tory government – like all Tory governments – consider the NHS an anathema and won’t rest until it is reduced to a soulless one-dimensional and not-fit-for-purpose flea market?
Winning arguments is fine, defending people who are being attacked is an admirable instinct, but setting the agenda and controlling the ground upon which to argue is paramount now.
Mark Radcliffe is a senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel.