“Everyone wants a share in victory”

AOP chief executive, Adam Sampson, on Latin learnings, the milestone optometry mention in the Labour Party’s manifesto, and the work that the AOP has been doing to ensure optometry is recognised by the next Government

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As some of you will know, I am partial to the occasional classical quote, so much so that the AOP communications team now refuses to allow me to smuggle them into my writing. Fortunately, this is for OT  and for once I can indulge myself.

Rest assured that when I do manage to sneak these references through, I am not trying to show off; it really is just how my mind works. Whilst most optometrists’ brains are, if the AOP Council’s WhatsApp group is anything to go by, stuffed full of facts about trains and planes and obscure pieces of ancient optometric equipment, mine is cluttered up with useless bits of poetry or, in this case, phrases stolen from two-thousand-year-old histories of the Roman conquest of Britain. I can remember bits of Tacitus, it seems, but my own kids’ names often elude me.

The relevance of the quote became evident when I was sitting in a meeting with sector bodies colleagues and the subject of the Labour Party manifesto came up. As OT has reported previously, this manifesto contains an explicit commitment to our sector: “We will allow other professionals such as opticians, to make direct referrals to specialist services or tests, as well as expanding self-referral routes where appropriate.” Ok – not the most ground-breaking of promises, but nonetheless, getting any mention in a party manifesto is pretty good going, and an explicit mention by a party that is so far ahead in the polls is a real achievement.

Although our preference would have been for the manifesto to use the term “optometrist,” we were already aware that the Labour communications team prefers to use the word “optician,” which it believes is more commonly understood by the public

We have made it our business at the AOP to cultivate direct links with all political parties over the past 18 months or so. This has been done in an attempt to help shape their policy agendas, and it is fair to say that it is our efforts with the Labour party that have been the most encouraging. Not only have we had direct contact with some of its front bench health team, but we have also been in regular contact with the policy people working in the background on briefings, speeches and – in this case – the wording of what goes into the manifesto. 

Although our preference would have been for the manifesto to use the term “optometrist,” we were already aware that the Labour communications team prefers to use the word “optician,” which it believes is more commonly understood by the public. In a similar way, Wes Streeting recently deliberately namechecked Specsavers on the Today Programme when discussing the need to make more use of primary care optometry, recognising it as a name that already has cut-through with the electorate.

So, while the manifesto reference was pleasing, it was not exactly a surprise. What did make me chuckle though in the sector body meeting – and brought the Tacitus quote up from the depths of my memory – was the natural inclination to jostle for a portion of the credit. What was true two thousand years ago remains true today: “Everyone wants a share in a victory.”

If you want to dig the quote out (it appears in various formulations), you can easily Google one of those “cliché of the day” websites and you’ll find it popping up. But you need to be careful with those things. When I was a kid, I went to an old-fashioned state grammar school, which at some point in Victorian times had decided it needed to show a bit of class and adopt a Latin motto. Someone therefore leafed through whatever the Dickensian equivalent of one of those websites was and found a quote from the Aeneid: “Haec olim meminisse juvabit,” which the school adopted, helpfully translating it as “one day we will look back on these things and rejoice.” The trouble is that the things that Aeneas was actually describing were the sack of Troy and murder of his family, and the use of “rejoice” was entirely ironic. Far from the underlying message being “schooldays are the best days of our life,” the actual meaning was more like, “what you are going through will scar you forever.”

Getting the Labour front bench to where they are is, as I say, is a real achievement and everyone involved deserves credit

Back to the Tacitus quote. I have given you the first half, but the passage as a whole is discussing the Romans’ failure fully to conquer the whole of Britain, with their victories being more than balanced by their defeats. The quote’s second half – and I will spare you the Latin – translates as something like, “but a defeat is blamed on one person alone.” Tacitus was too good a historian to spend time always dwelling on victory: he knew defeat often followed.

So before we get too excited, let’s be clear: our lobbying may be having an impact, but no one should be in any doubt that all we are doing at the moment is winning a few battles. I have been in this position a few times before in my career, where we have been able to reach into the thinking of an incoming ministerial team and plant a few useful policy seeds. That is a necessary pre-requisite for success, but it does not guarantee it.

While potentially soon-to-be-ministers may be receptive to our ideas now, when they hit their new offices on 5 July, they will find a team of officials waiting ready to present them at best with a score of other new ideas that they find equally compelling, or at worst with a hundred reasons why the ideas we have persuaded them to consider are impractical, expensive, risky or whatever excuses for inaction that they consider might work. Politicians in opposition are only too willing to consider new ideas; those in power are rapidly overwhelmed by the power of establishment.

None of that means we should not celebrate what we have done. Getting the Labour frontbench to where they are is, as I say, a real achievement and everyone involved deserves credit. But make no mistake: the real work will start on 5 July.