I used to turn the radio on early each morning to pick up on the latest news and current affairs. I don’t anymore – yesterday was the last straw. Yet another apparatchik, of some ministry or other (I think it was about Health, but could equally have been Transport, or Education) explaining with a fevered earnestness just how well the Government was successfully ‘delivering choice’.
Now I may be in a minority of one here, but ‘delivering choice’ is something we may expect Tesco’s to do, possibly. From a Government, we expect rather more; we actually expect a service of some kind to be delivered. They may decide, unwisely, to summon the demon ‘choice’ to aid them in their quest, but you and I had better get our ‘long spoons’ ready if we are to sup with it.
Put simply, if I break my leg just about the last thing I want is choice. I want it fixed, and quickly. Certainly, if the health-choices of others have left my local hospital without an A&E department, then ministerial bragging on Radio 4 about delivering choice rings hollow indeed. And most of all, I don’t appreciate being offered irrelevant choices: “Certainly Madam, and which waiting list would you wish to join? I have a 9 month wait in Cumbria, available now, or a 12 month wait in Winchester…”.
Which brings me round to Hobson’s choice, and that much maligned historical figure, Tobias Hobson, who owned a riding stable for the young gentlemen of Cambridge in the 17th Century. These riders rode hard, and Hobson had a large stable to handle the demand, but when a man came for a horse, he was always offered just the one that happened to be nearest the stable door (always the freshest horse). As noted in the Spectator Magazine in 1712, “so that every Customer was alike, and well served according”.
Hobson’s choice, you see, is not as often imagined the faux choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, it is the absolute withdrawal of choice – imposed for the greater good. Rather unfortunately, this is a difficult strategy to get right, demanding intelligence and wisdom, a deep knowledge of the business at hand, and a desire to act for the greater good often at personal cost. Not typical CV material for the political classes.
In my nightmares, I sometimes imagine all major departments of State merged into just the one – the Ministry of Choice. This monolith is not concerned with the delivery of anything real, since that would seem too much like hard work. Instead it delivers a wonderful array of gilded choices: 25 different numbers to call for directory enquiries, 50 different rail fares for the same journey, 75 different gas and electricity companies cold-calling me day and night, 100 new casinos to help me with my gambling issues, 200 new all-night drinking dens to help my alcohol problem along…and all these glittering prizes are mine for the asking. And if this all gets a little too much, then there’s always the one major delivery success of our NHS: Prozac by the ton.
Give me Hobson’s choice every time.
Definition: Hobson’s choice is a free choice in which only one option is offered.