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Unhealthy ambition

Medicine Balls

Phil Hammond

Tuesday, 02 July 2019

AdobeStock_55142348_ambition_blog.jpgIt’s not often I get on the national news these days but up I popped recently, asking Boris Johnson if he’d ever snorted cocaine. It was on Have I Got News for You back in 2005, and Johnson waffled his way through the answer. ‘I did…. I did… but I sneezed it back out again and it had no effect on me at all and it may well in fact have been icing sugar, but in any case I was a very silly, silly billy….’ I remember thinking what an unusual personality he had, endearing to some but entirely unsuited to prime minister. And here we are, 14 years later, and the biggest prize is his to lose. I was embarrassed, rather than horrified, at the illicit drugs confessions from assorted candidates. I did lots of things at medical school that might destroy my career as a future politician if they were plastered all over the Daily Mail, and we should forgive some youthful experimentation lest we end up with another robot leader. But we do need a leader who is compassionate, competent and collaborative, and of those who made the shortlist, Rory Stewart would have been a far greater threat to Labour than Johnson or Jeremy Hunt. At least he gave the impression of competence.

Politicians are an odd breed, not least the current crop of Conservatives many of whom were ‘early borders’. Being separated from your parents at a young age and sent away to prep and public schools (aka borstals for the rich) can play havoc with your long-term mental health. The combination of early abandonment and a reflex desire to please your distant parents puts you under huge pressure to make the most of your gold-plated ticket into the judiciary, the army, the City and, especially, government. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be the making of you’ is all the reassurance you get as you’re despatched to the rough house at 7, so your parents can enjoy their affairs in relative privacy.

I went to Marlborough College as a boarder, but only for the sixth form, having enjoyed a good state school education. I skipped the waiting list and the fees (currently £40,000 a year) because a kindly headmaster gifted me a place to recognise the contribution my deceased Australian Dad had made as a chemistry teacher. I relished the opportunity, cruising into Cambridge to study medicine which I doubt I would have done back then from the local comprehensive. But what struck me most was how damaged some of the pupils were (my floor consisted entirely of four-parent families) and how good they became at disguising it. All that money buys you is a sense of entitlement and supreme confidence, often far in excess of your competence. And the culture of elitism can make you a bully beyond any accountability. Mr Johnson, our likely prime minister, has called gay men ‘bum boys’, black Africans ‘Piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’ and likened Muslim women wearing hijabs to ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letter boxes’, without any understanding of the harm his comments have done. We may not want a robot leader, but we certainly don’t want a cruel one.

Watching Hunt and Johnson producing their magic cheque books to desperately bribe Tory party members has been painful to witness, as has their attempts to ‘out macho’ each other on Brexit. Both now say they would leave without a deal, and bugger the consequences. Supporters of a no deal Brexit are like a dodgy surgeon who promises he can make your penis touch the floor and then does it by cutting your legs off. If I was prime minister, I would make health and wellbeing the paramount political consideration, trumping economic growth. Our planet can’t sustain its current levels of growth so focusing on yet more consumption without considering the environmental consequences is rash in the extreme. As Ghandi observed: “There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” We certainly don’t need more austerity, but any economic growth must be driven by innovations that are sparing of natural resources and energy, and the profits shared fairly.

Politicians know this, but they’re too focused on the short term (winning leadership battles, leaving the EU) and too frightened to speak the truth. My favourite political quote comes from Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission: “We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” It’s time for some hard truths and fair taxes, so everyone can enjoy the fruits of progress without burning down the house.

Dr Phil is doing two shows at the Edinburgh Fringe www.drphilhammond.com

Author's Image

Phil Hammond

Phil Hammond is an NHS doctor, journalist, author, broadcaster, speaker and comedian. He qualified in 1987 and worked part time in general practice for over 20 years. For the past seven years he has worked in a specialist NHS team for young people with chronic fatigue. He presented five series of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor on BBC2, encouraging patients to be more involved, assertive and questioning. Phil is Private Eye’s medical correspondent; in 2012, he was shortlisted with Andrew Bousfield for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism for ‘Shoot the Messenger’, an investigation into the shocking treatment of NHS whistleblowers. In 2013 and 2014, he was judged to be one of the top 100 clinical leaders in the NHS by the Health Service Journal. As a comedian, Phil was half of the award-winning double-act Struck Off and Die, with Tony Gardner. He has done five solo UK tours, appeared on several TV shows, and has written five books.
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