Anthony Hilton: We need debate not disapproval

It is sometimes said that modern society has lost the ability to debate complex issues.

Anthony Hilton: We need debate not disapproval
Anthony Hilton: We need debate not disapproval

Attention spans are too short, while the media prefer sensationalism and sound bites to detail and complexity. In a television-dominated age, the glib but superficial analysis usually seems much more believable to the viewer than the ponderous explanation.

Debate is undermined too by politicians' aching need to be popular at all times, which hinders their ability to persist with policies that turn out to score badly with focus groups. The certainty of short-term pain is seen to be too high a price to pay for uncertain medium-term benefits. This weakness means the Government is subject to what amounts in effect to a daily referendum on its policies, as interpreted by the Daily Mail.

Two recent casualties of this approach are Health Minister Andrew Lansley's programme of NHS reform, and Justice Minister Ken Clarke's attempt to restore some sanity to the system of criminal justice. The debate that led to their abandonment was driven by emotion.

The Government is going to have to find a way round this. Business Secretary Vince Cable told an audience at the conference last week of the Association of British Insurers that creating an affordable system of long-term care for the elderly was one of the most difficult issues with which the Government was going to have to grapple this year. A report by economist Andrew Dilnot into exactly that subject is to be published next week.

It is expected to say people will have to pay more, with the Government stepping in to pick up the tab beyond a certain point, while those of limited means will have the Government pay for it all. That would seem to meet the nebulous concept of fairness, but where it is likely to explode is in the cost. The reality for many people will be that their care can only be funded by selling their house.

This is a classic horribly complex problem that needs reason rather than emotion, but already the Mail is saying such a trade-off is unacceptable. Government is going to have to ratchet up significantly the quality of its comms if it is going to have a chance of getting its argument across, let alone winning the debate.

Anthony Hilton, City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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