The NHS, the War and the rebirth of Britain
The health service inspires pride across Left and Right
Today is the 75th birthday of the NHS, the one institution that inspires almost unquestionable love in the British public. Indeed, it has an almost unique bridging role in that it unites both the patriotism of the Right, that of national belonging, and the patriotism of the Left, defined by accomplishment. During the post-Brexit period of polarisation both Leavers and Remainers could agree on one thing, that the National Health Service made them proud to be British – more than any other achievement.
Nigel Lawson famously called it a national religion, but even a theocracy has its dissenters and oddballs, and I admit I often find the national psychology quite alienating. It’s one of those things, like twee and panto, which makes me feel like a visiting anthropologist studying the strange habits of another culture.
For example, I often see people tweeting about a successful operation, or the birth of a child, and thanking the NHS for their good fortune. When I’ve needed medical treatment, or more importantly required it for my children, I’ve almost always felt immense gratitude to the doctors and nurses. I appreciate that these are incredibly hard jobs (nursing has a very high suicide rate) and it requires a huge amount of resilience. They are lifesavers. The birth of our last child was quite stressful, and for a brief moment frightening, and the staff at the Whittington Hospital were outstanding. Many couples name their child after their midwife, and I pondered whether to do the same, except that her name was Rose and I don’t think that would have worked (it was a boy anyway).
But I don’t understand the idea of ‘thanking’ the NHS, rather than the health workers involved, since we would have received similar – free – service in almost every other developed country except the United States.
Yet most people seem unaware of the fact that not only is universal healthcare widespread around the world, but that much of Europe doesn’t really have an ‘NHS’ and everyone still gets medical coverage, often with much better outcomes. It’s not just Germany, Switzerland, France or the Netherlands which have less socialised systems; even Sweden has proportionately far more private operations than the UK.
There are some critics out there trying to make this point, to little avail. The German-born Kristian Niemietz of the IEA has long been conducting a lonely campaign to convince the British that their system might not be such a unique global jewel, but his role in the debate is largely like that of the Middle Eastern wrestlers in WWF whose job was to be booed by the crowd when I was a kid.