• Obama’s Health Care Bill and the British General Election

    In a 50-year involvement in politics, I have often found that friendship is perfectly possible with people of very different political views from my own. Over a 20-year period as a member of the House of Commons, I often found that some of the more stimulating and amusing companions came from the ranks of those whose political views I abominated.

    I have often puzzled over the fact that people who are so agreeable in personal terms can hold views about society and social issues that are so unattractive. People who are kind to animals, generous to their friends, supportive of family members who need support, exhibit a breathtaking and at time cruel lack of generosity, compassion and understanding when it comes to those who are a little more distant from them in social or cultural or ethnic terms.

    My explanation of this apparent paradox is that people who hold right-wing views (excluding those who are just plain nasty) often suffer from a failure of imagination. Their impulses are fine and generous when they relate to people who are recognisable and close to them – my own dear parents were a case in point. But they are unable to project those commendable responses to a wider range because they are simply unable to understand that society is made up of people who are just as dear to others as their own friends and family are to them.

    These thoughts were prompted all over again by reports of the debate over Barack Obama’s health care bill. For those fortunate souls who have had the good luck to live in countries (which make up the bulk of what we might have once called the civilised world) that see the provision of health care to all their citizens as a basic social responsibility, it has been almost beyond belief that people who would surely be regarded as pillars of their local community and as exhibiting all sorts of civic virtues could possibly hold views that are so downright vicious and hostile to those who are among the most deprived in their country – the most in need of sympathy and help.

    How can such people elevate pious commitments to abstract and exaggerated metaphysics above the simple and natural concern for one’s fellow human beings? How can they profess to see such danger and evil in the recognition that we are all members of human society and that it is that membership that is hugely more important and deserving of recognition than the harsh and cruel attempt to measure some hypothetical material and moral contribution which alone is to be the allowable basis for drawing any benefit or support from society?

    And that in turn led me to contemplate the forthcoming general election in Britain. I have spent a lifetime in Labour politics, at various levels and in various capacities. I have been, with the luxury of judging from a distance, among the most critical of traditional Labour supporters of the many failures, disappointments and betrayals of this latest Labour government. I do not resile at all from those criticisms, and from that pervasive sense that the Blair/Brown government has represented a massive lost opportunity.

    But when, on an issue as fundamental as enabling 30 million people in the world’s richest country to escape from the destructive vicious circle of poverty leading to ill health and back again to poverty, I see exhibited before me the perverse, mean-minded and just plain deluded response of people who have supposedly been elected to represent the common interest, I know what it is that I oppose, and therefore what side I am on.

    I remain profoundly disillusioned at the performance of the Labour government. But a general election is a new game. It at least raises the possibility that we can elect a new government, including a new and better Labour government. A vote in that general election is an expression of hope that things can be better. I do not believe they can be better by electing a government that will – at least in part – accommodate the views and interests of those, like the opponents of Obama’s health care bill, who lack the capacity for human kindness.

    Bryan Gould

    22 March 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 22 March