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Friday, April 01, 2005
Why they call it healthy scepticism

It's become impossible in the last week to turn on BBC television or radio without hearing panellists singing the praises of a campaign for better school lunches, led by someone called Jamie Oliver. Because of course it's something no one in politics would dare really oppose, you can be sure whatever half-baked proposals are made, they'll be nodded through. To apply a little scepticism and market economics would only demonstrate lack of humanity.

And what a brilliant and dashingly original set of ideas we are hearing! Get this: more tax money is to be spent subsidising school canteens. I could have sat for hours trying to predict the nannying liberal response and never thought of that one.

I well recall my own school meals, and while at one school they were good, most were very bad, as evidenced by a giant bowl at the end of the hall to scoop the remains. We were told its contents were used as pig swill. I wonder whether what the pigs didn't touch was in turn sent back to the school.

But escaping the feeble-mindedness of the modern liberal, I didn't see the answer as automatically lying with the taxpayer. Indeed, I hope that in my innocent state, I might even have said that if you spend money and get garbage, what you should do is spend less money, not more.

Does not the problem lie more with lack of choice than lack of (cringe) "investment"? School canteens tend to enjoy a monopoly of cooked food provision in any school, as well as offering the only possibility for those on free school meals. I suspect one reason the food was so bad at my primary schools and so much better at my secondary school is that in the latter - unusually - we had two places one could buy food to eat in the dining area. Given the typical state of affairs, a school canteen need only provide a quality of service that doesn't drive everyone to the tuck shop or vending machine.

Which brings us to another of the modish recommendations, backed up fully by the health fascist lobby: that vending machines offering crisps, sweets and chocolate be taken out of schools. William Hague's so-called 'work or starve' policy, for dealing with those who claimed Jobseekers Allowance while running like hell from any job offer, is resurrected and modified to deal with the terrifying social menace of schoolboys eating Mars bars in their lunch hour: 'Eat your greens or starve'. Again, of course, the policy would be counterproductive. Precisely because the alternative to school meals is not starvation until the children get home that evening, canteens currently have to meet some sort of minimum standard, facing some level of competition. Take that away, and meals will be inferior even to their current state.

Perhaps the strongest case I ever heard against political correctness was made by Roger Scruton in a speech I attended last November. Conservatives above all recognise human failings and the unintended outcomes that result from plans that seem a jolly good idea at the time. It is for this reason that society needs free speech, and the confidence to point out the flaws and silliness of ideas that seem to their advocates to be the only sane and morally decent option. Because political correctness is a movement for destroying this freedom in some of the most important areas of life, it must be resolutely opposed.

This sort of issue isn't (yet) obstructed by PC, but the solution to problems like lousy school meals requires exactly the same fearless mindset. A mindset that knows recognising a problem does not necessitate calling on the government to solve it. A mindset that knows scoffing at and contradicting those who do make such calls is neither callous nor ignoring the problem. A common sense conservative who recognises the inherent shortcomings of state action has more effective - more useful - compassion in her little finger than an empty-headed liberal nanny has in her entire body.

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