Now the bourgeoisie bang their spoons

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THE GERMAN statesman Gustav Stresemann was a shrewd old boy. Contemplating the misfortunes of Germany in the first quarter of this century, he refused to mourn the loss of silly colonies, territory or gold. Instead he commented on the decline, through war and inflation, of his country's great, solid middle class, once the governor and regulator of the German state, its ballast and stabiliser.

Our present vicissitudes do not reveal that we in Britain have lost our middle class; far from it. According to the headlines, the middle class will be bearing the brunt of the foreshadowed cuts. Listen to the resultant squawks and clamour. Listen to the dire threats. Christchurch in danger, everywhere in danger, all the Tories' cosy dormitory and retirement seats. Listen to the calls for blood: poor Norman Lamont's; whose blood next? Not a pretty sound]

What is revealed may be a profound change in the middle class's character. Our bourgeoisie seems no longer a stabilising factor. On the contrary, it is now a loose cannon rendering the ship unresponsive to the helm, a danger to itself and to others. There is something wrong with our middle classes today.

For clues to what it is, let us return to the origins of the National Health Service, the source today of so much of the trouble. Its founding fathers, Beveridge and Bevan, both insisted on universal, equal, free health provision for all, rich and poor alike.

Some of their reasons were noble, or sounded so. Universal welfare was to be a badge of equal British citizenship. It was to weaken the class structure and to build, instead, a nation out of common experience. The presence of the well-to-do among the beneficiaries was not resented, as you might have expected, but warmly welcomed.

As David Blunkett now puts it, a health service only for the poor would be a poor service. The middle classes, accustomed loudly to demand the best, were supposed to keep up NHS standards. The poor would benefit from this, though obviously the middle classes have benefited more. Articulate and clever, they soon learnt how to work the machine to their advantage.

After the war equality, 'fairness' and regimentation were in the very air we breathed. Rationing was universal. Hardships were shared. Bombs fell alike on rich and poor, on just and unjust.

Other motives of the NHS founding fathers were less inspiring, less loudly proclaimed. Wherever money is extracted from the taxpayer and redistributed among beneficiaries, much indeed is lost, or appropriated by the redistributors. The power of the state is thus enhanced, an objective not offensive to all, certainly not to Beveridge or Bevan and certainly not to all the redistributing bureaucrats.

The expanding state favours beneficiaries, claimants and clients (a much favoured word). Ideally, it countenances no one with any income that is not derived directly or indirectly from itself. All would be thus reduced to querulous but impotent subservience.

This ideal has in no way been achieved, though we have far exceeded Professor Friedrich Hayek's prudent limit: roughly that, where freedom is to be preserved, no more than 20 per cent of the national income may safely be redistributed, nor more than 20 per cent of the population be beneficiaries.

With no strict or proper NHS accounting, massive and growing waste, inefficiency and corruption were inevitable. Best, thus, if the middle classes were lured, or forced, into the resultant free-for-all. It is not so easy to denounce the poor as thieves and scroungers if you yourself are in on the racket.

An expert in the Independent has described the NHS as 'a supermarket without tills'. Not exactly a prudent, thrifty middle-class concept, but not so bad if you are among the ones who walk laden through the checkout; not so bad if your own home is stuffed with surplus free pills and expensive equipment, on loan but somehow never returned.

Thus both well-off and poor benefit. They are united in pillaging a shambles that, by reason of their complicity and obstruction, becomes irreformable without disproportionate uproar. Middle-class people are traditionally used to wondering, 'Yes, but where is the money coming from?' They should quite understand Michael Portillo when he describes the Government's financial straits: more going out than is coming in. They should be shocked.

Dependants and claimants are by contrast less interested in causes and effects, in costs and benefits, means and ends. They just bang their spoons and bawl: 'Gimme.' As the middle classes themselves dwindle into dependency, they begin to behave thus, too.

One puzzle remains. Beveridge still enjoys the reputation of an austere, earnest, high-

minded economist, little given to fun or frivolous expenditure. There are tales of amatory antics in a master's lodge, culminating in the lady breaking a leg; but doubtless even these antics were of a suitably grave and mirthless character.

How then did he father an NHS financed and run in such a happy-go-lucky manner? The key lies in his slavery to a vast illusion. This was that the cost of national health, modest to start with, would fall as its objectives were achieved. He envisaged medical science as static. Given the cash, it could minister by known means to known and finite needs. With each pair of specs dispensed, each tooth stopped or set of gnashers issued, each ailment cured or chronic disease eliminated, its tasks and costs would be reduced. Beveridge had no conception of medical science as it really is: in a state of dynamic expansion, always devising new health tests for new diseases, new cures and treatments, new drugs and equipment, each more expensive than the last.

All this, you may scoff, is easy to see now, with the benefit of hindsight. With the benefit of foresight, it could be seen clearly then. Dr Frangcon-Roberts, actually Dr Sunray of the lefty New Statesman none the less, saw all]

In fact, though he never realised it, Beveridge faced a grim dilemma that we are encountering in a more acute form: there is nothing in medical science to prevent the whole national income from being spent on health care. To guard against such an absurd outcome, the Government has to rely on rationing, on arbitrary cuts and closures, on ever-increasing charges. All this causes bitter resentment, such as we see mounting now.

And, seemingly, we face all this without a steady, stabilising bourgeoisie, accustomed to read and understand the accounts, and to adjust policy and conduct according to their grim message. I suspect Stresemann would have reached nervously for a schnapps.