Back to website

July 10 2004,,482-1173810,00.html

Choose your words carefully if you want to be misunderstood

Matthew Parris

WORDS are so important. They indicate what people are trying not to say. Not dead but “passed on”, not sacked but “let go”, not crippled but “differently abled” . . . thus do we signal our cunning sense of what our audience does not wish to hear. Deftly to miss your target is as necessary a skill in a communicator as any talent for the crude bull’s-eye, and nobody can call himself a good shot who has not mastered the ability to aim off, and graze.

Nowhere is this truer than in politics. Some years ago I wrote about the kidnapping of a particular word by politicians determined that their public should take its eye off the ball: that word was “investment”. Today I want to look at another word, and a new distraction. “Choice” has been kidnapped by both Blairites and Tories in a daring combined raid.

But first, what happened to “investment”? As a parliamentary sketchwriter I spent many columns railing impotently at the linguistic fad started by Gordon Brown for calling all government spending “investment” — a word that once suggested the channelling of money not into fuelling the engine but into upgrading the machinery.

In that sense the word is today all but lost. Every increase in spending by the State is routinely described (by the media, today, as well as Labour politicians) as “investment” in public services. Extra wages, new subsidies, expanded supplies — items which would once have been called “current spending” — are all lumped under the term “investment”, an activity we are invited to contrast favourable with the “decades of under-investment” that went before.

Nobody is in favour of under-investment. The idea of investment carries with it similar connotations to the nurseryman’s planting of an apple tree: the suggestion that the disbursement is a one-off and short-term sacrifice promising a future and perpetual return. “Spending” connotes extravagance. “Investment” connotes prudence.

But from the start Mr Brown used the latter as a catch-all for both. This blurring was calculated. The Chancellor did, of course, wish to upgrade the machinery of public services, but he also wished to redirect a greater proportion of our wealth through the state sector, and to redistribute wealth from rich to poor. Mr Brown has won. RIP “investment”. Once a useful word, she has been ambushed, kidnapped and brainwashed, drained of honest meaning.

But if that raid was a success for Mr Brown and traditional Labour doctrine, this month’s raid has been a success for Tories and Blairite modernisers. Suddenly, the word “choice” is all the rage. From what are its new friends trying to distract us? What are they trying pointedly not to say?

The answer is obvious. Competition. “Don’t mention competition” is the unspoken imperative. A moment’s reflection will establish why.

Except to those post-Sartrean thrill-seekers for whom the very essence of existence resides in the sensation of personal choice, the act of choosing is not a goal in itself. When people say they “want a choice” it is not the experience of making one they crave. They mean they are unsatisfied with what is on offer so far. “Give me a choice” becomes a polite way of saying “I want something better”. If the first (and, for all one cares, the only) option on offer met with complete satisfaction one would not ask for a choice. When what is on the menu fits the bill then whether the menu is table d’hôte or à la carte is a matter of indifference.

The promise to give citizens a choice — in health, education or whatever — carries little appeal without the subliminal implication that these products are at present substandard but likely to improve as a result: that a world in which the citizen has a range of hospitals, schools or railway companies to choose from will be a world in which at least one available hospital, school or train will be an improvement on what would be available if there were no choice.

Many politicians and economists do believe this. Their reasoning is as follows. Choice implies competition. Choice for consumers means insecurity for providers. Insecurity keeps providers on their toes. When those who offer a service must compete for custom with rival providers, and face a possible loss of work and income if they fail, then they will work harder, run their businesses more efficiently, and strive more assiduously to find out what their customers want. The citizens’ “choice” thereforebecomes a means to an end: a state of competition whose inherent insecurity will goad the providers into raising their game.

Why then do politicians who purvey “choice” in public services not explain that what they mean is better public services, spurred by competition? For two reasons. First, the public is uneasy about competition. People welcome the results of free-market laissez-faire but the theory does not resonate so well. Will businesses hungry for custom cut corners they wonder? Adam Smith’s invisible hand does in many circumstances work as well as he argued, but the public has not entirely understood the argument. Millions of my countrymen would offer a resounding hear-hear to the counter-argument: that competition introduces a wasteful duplication of resources and blinds providers to what should be their goal: the public interest.

The prospect that some hospitals providing care to NHS patients might be motivated by (under Tory proposals) the profit motive, or by (under both Tory and Labour proposals) loss of funds and status if “outputs” fell by comparison with rival hospitals, alarms people. The prospect that state schools should fight with each other for survival, or parents fight with each other to get their children into the better state schools, alarms people too. Those thus alarmed include much of the Labour Party and many swing voters too.

Blairites and Tories know this. That is why they talk about “choice” when they mean “competition”. Lulled by the promise of choice, voters are being nudged towards its natural consequence: competition. The word “choice” is a most important element in that so-far successful strategy.

You might expect me to approve of the result, if not the dishonesty. As a convinced Conservative with no hang-ups about the profit motive and a lively appreciation of the benefits competition can bring, you might suppose me to have little sympathy with “old” Labour’s resistance to “reform” of public services.

But I am not so sure. Ever since the publication 30 years ago of E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, there has been a gathering intellectual fashion for fragmentation. Every organisation worthy of the name has attracted criticism as being unresponsive, a monolith, too big for its own good. To present this as an argument between collectivists and free-marketeers distorts. Socialism has its enthusiasts for the small platoons, just as free-market economics has its enthusiasts for corporate monoliths. The argument is really about how goods are best delivered, not about who owns the delivery system, but because for a century Marxists commandeered the case for monoliths, Tories have rather forgotten that there is a perfectly non-ideological case for certain kinds of market being served in this way.

Arguably, many tremendous human achievements would not have been possible by any other means. Would Rome have been built, or the British Empire so efficiently run, except by intelligent centralisation of command? On what other basis could our National Health Service have been created, and how do you overlook the fact that until recently it remained incomparably the best cheap health service in the world? Were our railways, even when private, not monoliths within their regions — and was British Rail, in retrospect, not a rather impressive and cost-effective monolith? Is the British Army notably ineffective for not being franchised, internally differentiated and multisourced?

Are supermarket chains — admittedly in competition with each other — not beneficiaries of massively centralised structures? Did Coca-Cola, WH Smiths or Mcdonalds get where they are by emphasising the differences between their outlet-suppliers and promising “choice”? Is the super-centralised French school system obviously less successful than our own?

I put this tentatively because I feel tentatively about it; but perhaps, just perhaps, there is a better case to be made than today it feels fashionable to make, for a big education secretary getting a big grip on English state secondary education, taking a big stick and several big carrots to failing comprehensives, and sorting it out from the centre. Perhaps, just perhaps, a big enough health secretary might conclude that the people don’t want hospitals to vary: they want them to be the same, and good, everywhere.

Perhaps, just perhaps, as we flail and fiddle about with fragmentation, competition and choice, we are distracting ourselves from a central truth: that from big structures, big men, big plans and big resources, we could get big results.