Reid plays it for laughs

If ever there was a triumph of style over substance, it was the
health secretary’s speech to the national social services
conference in Newcastle last week. John Reid spoke entertainingly,
there was even talk of revolution, but the 800-strong audience
waited in vain for insights relevant to the conference’s dominant
theme: the future direction of social care.

The previous speaker, new Association of Directors of Social
Services president Tony Hunter, had mentioned a few of the
challenges ahead: how social care will function in partnership with
health, education and the voluntary sector; how it will retain a
distinctive professional role; and how it will engage more
successfully with communities and build social capital. These are
radical changes, but it was not the social care revolution that
Reid wanted to talk about.

Instead there was a throwback to his communist past when he picked
up on a whimsical reference Hunter had made to the Marxist
revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. “Perhaps we should form a
revolutionary society,” he joked, “but don’t tell the other Tony.
If anybody asks, just say it was Radio Luxembourg.”

It got a laugh, but it also captured something about this speech
and so many others like it: the sacrifice of serious politics for
the superficial jingle. Apart from polishing up a few one-liners
beforehand, Reid had merely managed to think of “sloppy slipper”
exchanges as one of social care’s significant achievements. And so
they are, but where was the evidence of strategic thinking about
the evolution of adult-care services that might have supplied the
context for this initiative to cut the number of falls among older

No such evidence was forthcoming. Social services directors in the
audience emerged no better briefed about the impending green paper
on adult social care, or about the likely impact of this and the
public health white paper on their roles. There was a passing
reference to the new post of adult social services director, the
next step for many existing directors, but no detail. Education
secretary Charles Clarke’s comments two days earlier on the new
role of children’s services director had been equally

Warming to his subject, Reid treated us to the famous advice of
another revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci, to all change agents
everywhere: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. And
that was how we were sent out into the damp Newcastle air, none the
wiser but still vaguely hopeful, going on a wing and a prayer.

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