When I was young I never paid that much attention to the National Health Service. This isn’t entirely surprising. When you’re young, you don’t, unless you’re very unlucky, tend to have much very much contact with doctors and hospitals, and their associations with death and illness are likely to induce many young people to stay away from and certainly not think about them too much. In addition, the NHS has been around so long that it takes a degree of historical memory to recall what things were like before it existed, or how lucky we are to have the system that we do have.
I was just the same once. I really didn’t like hospitals and generally came out of them with a feeling of vague horror at the medicinal smells and the sight of people suffering from dreadful illnesses whose names I didn’t know, but which even as a young man I sensed might be waiting for me further down the line.
Since then I’ve got older. I’ve had illnesses and I’ve known others who have been ill, had accidents, or been treated for all kinds of serious and not-so-serious incidents. Again and again, in my own contact with the NHS, and with the stories that I’ve heard from others, I’ve been moved and impressed by the dedication, professionalism and kindness of NHS doctors and nurses. I’ve seen lives saved or enhanced. I’ve seen people I cared about receive expensive and complex treatments that they could not have paid for had the NHS not existed.
In those years I’ve come to regard the NHS as an institution that represents the best and most generous instincts of the British people. Many years ago the late socialist GP and writer David Widgery once described an NHS operating theatre as part of a web of human solidarity that reached far out beyond the room itself, and that image has always stuck in my mind.
It isn’t that I think the NHS is perfect or beyond criticism or improvement, but that is something very different from the visceral loathing for it that emanates from the British right – a loathing is essentially ideological and is so intense that it sometimes defies logic and borders on hysteria.
Take Tory MP for Bristol Charlotte Leslie, who last week compared critics of the NHS (like her) to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, insinuating that they were being persecuted and that debate about the NHS was being ‘suppressed’ just as the ‘ debate’ about immigration had supposedly been suppressed before it. Leslie described the NHS as a ‘religion’ and attacked it in wildly intemperate terms:
“The NHS is now being destroyed by all the very worst aspects of religion: those aspects that get created by humans who see themselves as these religions’ guardians to preserve their own power, and which outlaw the exposition of facts and reason. But if we value the things around which we have built a religion, and want to preserve their fundamental values — quality care free at point of need in the NHS for example — we all, the public, the media and politicians — must all become ‘Charlie’: break those taboos, and celebrate, not persecute, others doing so too. That would be a real tribute to freedom of speech for the public good.”
Well it takes some gall to to use the Paris tragedy as an opportunity to have a go at the NHS and compare its defenders to murdered cartoonists. But this is what the right are like when it comes to the Health Service; its continued existence drives them bonkers. And now a 2010 video has been published by Labour which shows UKIP secretary and national executive member, former City barrister Matthew Richardson, telling a Washington audience
‘ I couldn’t possible imagine when I was younger is now the amount of money that is owed by my country, and soon more than that by your country, to other countries, paying for wasteful socialist programmes. And of course at the heart of this, the Reichstag bunker of socialism is the National Health Service.’
The Reichstag bunker of socialism. And there I was thinking that all those doctors and nurses were trying to save lives and make sick people well, when in fact they were all sort of like Hitler, practicing ‘wasteful socialist programmes’.
Well thank you Mr Richardson for yet another piece of UKIP wisdom. My world never ceases to broaden with everything these people say. Leaving the Reichstag to one side however, there is no doubt that this link between ‘socialism’ and the NHS is a crucial component of the passion that makes such idiocy possible. And they’re not entirely wrong, as Ken Loach’s terrific film 1945 makes clear.
Libertarian rightists see the NHS as the last bastion of a collectivist tradition that they want to eradicate completely from British society. They loathe it because they see it as antithetical to the principles of competition and the right to make money out of anything that has driven more than three decades of neoliberal ‘reform.’
Some of them have direct connections to companies that want to make money out of NHS privatisation. Others, like Charlotte Leslie herself, see the NHS as a form of decadence that caters for a feckless younger generation and panders to ‘lifestyle diseases’ and ‘lifestyle choices’ rather than ‘real’ health problems.
The sophistication of their arguments varies, but their essential goal remains the same – they want the NHS to disappear as a tax-funded institution or at least to change it so radically that it no longer exists in its present form.
The problem they have is that most people in the UK don’t agree with them, and they don’t believe them when they say that competition will still ensure free medical care at the point of use. They smell rats and they’re right to do so.
The popularity of the NHS was one of the driving forces behind the Scottish independence campaign last year, and politicians have found again and again that the British don’t want to give up the institution that Leslie and others caricature as a ‘religion.’ That means that the NHS is also a constant political problem for all the parties – including Labour, which has also played its part in NHS ‘reform.’
This is why they have to pretend that they want to save it or run it better whenever an election campaign comes round. Its why the Tories constantly run the NHS down while insisting that they are the ones who care about it the most. Even UKIP has now stood up for the NHS now the point when it has publicly disowned its own leader’s calls for privatization.
As Nye Bevan once said, ‘ The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.’ He was right. The right would like to reduce those numbers by destroying that faith.
We mustn’t let them.