Magazine | May 17, 2010, Issue

That Personal Touch

The British election campaign didn’t do much to catch the attention of Americans, but one little item feels pertinent — although it attracted remarkably little attention even across the pond. In Sherwood, Nottinghamshire, a lady called Phyllis Delik received a postcard from Gordon Brown’s Labour party. On one side, there was a photograph of a woman suffering from breast cancer saying “It’s the sort of thing you think will never happen to you.” On the reverse, there was a question: “Are the Tories a change you can afford?” — followed by a warning that the Conservatives would scrap a Labour guarantee that any woman diagnosed with breast cancer is entitled to see a specialist within two weeks.

(Yes, yes, I know that lingo still sounds a little strange to Americans: Government bureaucrats announce “targets” for the length of time between seeing your family doctor and seeing your specialist, or between getting your MRI and getting your operation. But don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to it.)

As it turned out, Mrs. Delik is a breast-cancer survivor herself, so the postcard was very relevant to her. She brought it up among a group of her girlfriends — seven of them. Six had not received the Labour election card. The seventh had — and, by a remarkable coincidence, Shirley Foreman had had surgery for breast cancer. So in a group of eight women the only ones to receive the government’s breast-cancer warning were the two breast-cancer patients. “When I received the breast-cancer card at first I thought it was from the hospital,” said another Sherwood resident, Janet Arslan. “I did not think Labour would be that crass to deliberately target a terminal cancer patient like me.”

The party’s official position is that, well, they sent out 250,000 of their Vote-Labour-or-Die postcards, so it’s not surprising that a few of them should have wound up going to women who happen to have breast cancer. In this case, however, everybody who’s come forward to say she received the card has either been diagnosed with, been treated for, survived, or, in at least one case, died of breast cancer (it was her widower who came forward). A 44-year-old TV producer in Poplar and Limehouse, a marginal constituency in East London, canvassed 50 of her neighbors and discovered that she was the only one to get the card. Like all the others, it was personally addressed to her. She’d recently been told she had a lump in her breast.

So a quantum leap in targeted marketing has just been made: The governing party of a free society was able to identify women with breast cancer in swing constituencies and send them a postcard warning that if you vote for the opposition they’ll cut off your chemo and kill you.

#page#The official position of Gordon Brown’s chaps is that “we make no apology for highlighting the difference between Labour and the Conservatives on cancer care” — which sounds oddly evasive, although they concede the private mail-shot companies they contract with use sociodemographic data in the public domain. However, no publicly accessible database knows about Janet Arslan’s terminal cancer. Diane Dwelly, the patient featured on the postcard, says she thought she was being photographed for a magazine published by the National Health Service, not a campaign commercial for the Labour party. She complains that she has “probably been used by Labour.”

But in Gordon Brown’s Britain who hasn’t been? Labour denies that it somehow accessed confidential medical records, while declining to offer an alternative explanation as to how it was able to alert sick women that the opposition is planning on killing them.

Britain today is a land in which the citizen takes for granted that he will be photographed by closed-circuit TV multiple times in the course of his day, and in which roadside cameras can zoom into your car and detect whether you’re illegally eating a sandwich while operating a motor vehicle. In some municipalities, cameras in trash cans record your garbage. These are only the most obvious signs of an omnipresent state that maintains hundreds of different databases tracking the activities of the citizenry in every sphere of life. In theory, these databases are entirely separate: The National Health Service bureaucrats cannot access your tax records; the tax collector cannot access your medical records. But in practice who knows? You’ll recall that, when Joe the Plumber’s appearance on the scene proved unhelpful to Barack Obama, it was the work of moments for “public servants” to leak his confidential information.

It may well be that voting Tory reduces your life expectancy. On the other hand, it could be the case that, when you’re already sick and vulnerable, the stress of receiving a scary notification suggesting that your health treatment is in jeopardy might also reduce your life expectancy. If you live in a small apartment house in a marginal constituency and collect your mail from the hall table and you see the lady on the top floor’s breast-cancer card lying there one morning, the stress of wondering if next week the postman will leave a personally addressed erectile-dysfunction mail-out warning that the Tories are going to cut back on your Viagra might easily impact your performance.

Sherwood is, of course, the famous forest where Robin Hood once foiled the Sheriff of Nottingham. It was easier to cock a snook at the overbearing state back then. In a high-tech world, Big Government takes big liberties, in every sense. In this respect, it seems relevant that the biggest employment boost from Obamacare will be 16,500 new . . . doctors? nurses? hospital janitors? No. IRS agents, hired to determine whether your health-care arrangements are government-compliant. I wonder what they’ll need to know about you to establish that — and how they’ll go about finding out.

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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