The What-iffer

P G Wodehouse wrote a short story called ‘The Nodder’, in which a young man obtained employment in 1930s Hollywood as the last in a line of yes-men to a film mogul. The first yes-man would answer ‘certainly Mr Fishbein’ to everything that was proposed, the next ‘absolutely, Mr Fishbein’, and so on down the line, until the last man who would merely nod enthusiastically. (The Nodder finally wins his girl, in fine Plum tradition, by rising up and saying No.)

I thought of the Nodder on opening my Times this morning to read that the land registry in Yunyan in south-western China has brought in a ruling that farmhouses may not exceed 240 square metres in size (p39, 5th December 2012 – I can’t give you the link as it’s behind a paywall). The result has been a spate of divorces, pushing the marriage breakdown rate up by 500%. Clearly, an unintended consequence has emerged. The ruling ordained that two families within one house would be allowed twice the space. Newly-divorced couples return home hand-in-hand to live together as two families, able to hang on to their previously illicit houses.

Whoever created this rule is in need not of a Nodder, but of a What-iffer. This of course is someone who would have asked, ‘what if a couple has a farmhouse bigger than 240 sq m and wants to keep it? Can they just divorce?’

Our current government needs a What-iffer more than most, but I think every government should have one – or rather a team of them. The What-iffer’s status would combine some elements of the Spad (or Special Adviser) and the court jester – the ability to speak the truth to power, or perhaps to ask the truth of power – without fear of retribution or punishment. It would have to be a legal duty of the law-makers to listen and respond to each point the What-iffer brings up. It would, conversely, be the What-iffer’s duty to avoid facetious or malicious questioning – he or she would have to be a person of exemplary ethical behaviour. All What-iffer questions and the government’s responses would instantly be made public.

I’ll give you some examples of what a What-iffer might have asked concerning recent government pronouncements. No doubt you will think of many more yourself.

On schools:

  • “What if good schools have to close because a free school has opened nearby?”
  • “What if excluding arts subjects from the Ebacc means that one of our greatest-earning industries (i.e. the creative sector) were to fail?” [Note: asking ‘what if’ is a traditional technique of the novelist and story-teller.]

On housing benefit:

  • “What if the under-25s losing their housing benefits are the parents of children?”
  • “What if their own parents are dead, demented, living abroad, in prison, violent against them, living in a one-bedroomed flat or homeless themselves, and therefore cannot help their children?”
  • “What if capping benefits means that families must give up their existing jobs, and move away from all their friends, family and support networks to areas with no work available, where their children will be thrust to the margins of society? What will it cost in human, social and cash terms?”

On child benefit:

  • “What if, should you limit child benefit to two children, a couple’s second pregnancy is twins or triplets?”
  • “What if a formerly solvent family with more than two children falls on hard times?”

You’ll notice I haven’t embarked on listing any ‘what-ifs’ of economic policy – it would be just too depressing.

Of course, we do have something like What-iffers, though they are not called that – they are Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, the House of Lords, the Press and, finally, the people – squeaking away with our online petitions and Twitter campaigns. However, there is no obligation on government to do more than bat away their objections with a lordly air, and simply to carry on doing what they were going to do until the what-ifs actually come to pass.

There are chinks of light – I gather the policy to remove housing benefit from under-25s is to go. The point is that it should never have reached the light of day. The What-iffers would have seen to that.

Published in: on December 5, 2012 at 12:34  Comments (10)  

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Ah, the venerable back-of-the-envelope method of making policy. The law of unintended consequences has been hard at work since the Coalition came into being. I would say that the arts in Newcastle losing all their council funding falls into this camp, but the social consequences are far more severe.

    Loving the snow-effect, you camp old thing…

    • Too true. (The snow is courtesy of wordpress, but I admit that I love it!)

  2. What if Lady Eff were to run for parliament? Just sayin’

    • What if there were a political party that Lady Eff could face joining? And that would have a chance of winning a seat?

  3. What if the Coalition Government falls apart before the end of the newly introduced 5 year fixed term Parliament? (Brrrrr this blog is cold!)

  4. I suspect that the goverment doesn’t want to know the downside of proposed changes to policy and are concerned only with their implementation. Or worse, they are aware of the potential pitfalls but turn a blind eye.

    • Well isn’t that what the Sir Humphries spend most of their time doing? Assessing the downside and planning how to stop obvious pitfalls turning into headlines in the Times?

    • Thanks Jane – for some reason it won’t play very well in the office so I’ve sent myself the link to watch at home. Hope you’re well! Lady Eff x

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