Britain booms as the health service ails

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The Independent Online
Boom! There it goes, up, up and away, a great gossamer diaphanous balloon full of hot air. Feeling good? Never had it so good, or at least not since 1986. Oh, happy days are here again.

So how does it feel to be plumb in the middle of the boom? Can you sniff it in the air? Does it smell of Givenchy and Jean-Paul Gaultier? Hear the music of cash registers, the zip of credit cards whisking through the slots. Does it ripple like Issey Miyake pleats over the skin? Or slide down the throat like a filament of roasted red pepper with goats' cheese, ciabatta and rocket?

You want to fly to Egypt over Easter? Forget it. Egypt is full. Watch the star-studded openings of shimmering chic restaurants, see the queues for tables spill out on to the pavements from Clapham High Street to Camden Town. MPs grumble that you can't get a decent table near Westminster for love or lots of money. (Boom talk is London talk.)

No, no, says the Chancellor. What boom? Only sustained and sustainable steady growth. It will last for ever! This time is different. Yet, from the bounce in his Hush Puppies, there is boom in the Chancellor's every step. The only difference this time is that no one thanks him for it - it's the feel-good-no-thanks-to-you boom. When will the balloon come down? Just before the next election.

Dear children, you who are too young to remember a decade ago, a word or two of warning. We have been here before - it does not last. Our mediocre growth rate has been static at less than 2.5 per cent since 1850. Even out the little booms and busts, that's what you get. As ever, the politicians eagerly mistake a cyclical upturn for permanent bliss - growth at 4 to 5 per cent from now on. But what goes up must come down.

The South-east housing market is puffing fit to burst. Knight Frank say that demand so far exceeds supply in the home counties that properties don't even reach their notice-boards; they are sold within hours. No more negative equity by the end of this year: we have lift-off, (except for those wretches already repossessed). Manor-houses, waterside, top of the range, there aren't enough country houses to go round. A three-bedroom country house at pounds 350,000 last week drew so many enquiries that the vendors demanded best-and-final offers in sealed bids and got an extra pounds 15,000. "We haven't had sealed bids in years," say the agents. Savills tell their buyers these prices will rise by 50 per cent by the millennium.

Ian Christie, of the Henley Centre for Forecasting, says none of the overall figures tell the story. "Averages are meaningless. This is the winner-takes-all economy. Consumer confidence? Everyone knows it's a risk economy now, it's just a matter of `how lucky do you feel?'" Even the winners fear becoming the next downturn's losers.

"Cool Britannia" said Time magazine's cover, extolling the triumph of booming Brit culture - the Sixties all over again: for Beatles, Bridget Riley and Carnaby Street read Oasis, Damien Hirst and Galliano. This issue of Vanity Fair's front cover has joined the stampede. Booming, they say. It's money from the Lottery flowing into the arts, it's the Eurostar train, the relaxation of archaic licensing laws, London, nerve centre of pop, clothes, movie-making and gastronomy. Even Tony Blair is cool. (What?)

I sit on the Northern Line reading all this, frankly embarrassed to be seen reading it as bored passengers glare over my shoulder. We are stuck for 35 minutes in the tunnel, then slowly, slowly we inch past filthy, peeling stations, tempers fraying, pulses racing. Cool, huh? I can see Oval station might make a hip backdrop for a sultry anorexic modelling a Vivienne Westwood, or maybe the Spice Girls could strut their scrawny little belly-buttons on the grungy Kennington platform. Cool.

What is the story? The same old story as last time. More private squandering, more public squalor. Booming in Beauchamp Place, bust in the Health Service. "Credit is going bananas!" says one economist. Banana republic. The rich get richer, the poor fall even further behind. Never has the income gap been so wide this century. This is like the last fin de siecle, decadent Edwardian country house parties in the midst of agricultural slump. Meanwhile, in every boom the 25 per cent of people on small, fixed pensions, on social security, sickness and unemployment benefit fall further behind the rest: up goes the balloon, down stay the downsized and downtrodden.

The money that is supposed to flow into the Treasury on each upturn never flows back into public services. Cool or what? The universal political doctrine is that we can afford no more for anything. Not for transport, health or all the schemes that prevent crime. The "we" who cannot afford these things is the very same "we" lunching in Quaglino's and Mezzo.

Do I seek socialism, I ask myself suddenly, bemused. No, this is only a demand for the free market to be tempered by the need for public services on which we all depend: safe streets, hospitals that work, good schools that don't turn out hordes of unemployable yobs, public transport that runs reliably, public places that raise the spirits. This is not socialism, egalitarianism or the politics of envy, but desire for a decent quality of life that no amount of private, untaxed money can purchase. But "we" cannot afford it - munch, munch.

So what is affordability? Take the NHS, for it gets the most unequivocal universal support. In the Wirral, concern about the NHS is the first reason on the lips of those doing nicely who nevertheless plan to switch to Labour. Little do they know.

A reminder of the figures: the NHS needs nearly 3 per cent real growth to keep up with more old people, new treatments and drugs: it has had 75 per cent more in real terms since 1979. Now Gordon Brown has signed his name in blood to plans for such minuscule growth that it faces calamity never before witnessed: by 1999 the NHS will be pounds 5bn short. If it is allowed to fall so far behind, it will never catch up because by then to get back to where the NHS is now would take a hike of 3p on income tax, which no chancellor will ever sanction. The "we" who couldn't afford it will find ourselves paying a lot more for private health insurance to cover the shortfall.

Raising the alarm in a recent brilliant Analysis programme on Radio 4, Andrew Dilnot of the Institute of Fiscal Studies reminds us that how much we spend on the NHS is a matter of choice, not an economic law. Affordability is in the eye of the voter. But who will alert the voter that both parties are knowingly signed up to an NHS-killing budget?

Remember Gordon Brown's words: "I've an iron commitment to stability in public finances ... our programme requires no new spending ... and I can confirm also that we will be making no new commitments in our manifesto which require additional spending." Let us pray that he is lying through his teeth. In the meantime, boomers, enjoy!