Oh God, spare me the tawdry politics and gushing eulogies about the NHS

Protesters march on Downing Street

I should have guessed that the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service was destined to induce a bout of collective hysteria.

In just a few short days we’ve had the histrionic protest march on Downing Street which averred that the NHS is being starved of cash at a time when it’s getting more than it’s ever had.

Last week we had the sight of Jeremy Corbyn et al sitting on the opposition benches with their NHS at 70 badges, doing their best to resemble a child on its birthday with an “I am 5” badge.

Today Sky News is broadcasting directly from a hospital in Manchester as if this is somehow taking us into the heart of the story.

If you want to get to the heart of the story, all you needed to do was visit one of east Kent’s hospitals this winter and peer around the accident and emergency areas.

The Kent and Canterbury Hospital

A friend of mine from south Canterbury mine spent 14 hours waiting to be treated after bumping his head.

The BBC, natch, outdid Sky by broadcasting something described as a “film-poem” written by Welsh poet Owen Sheers.

Called The NHS: to Provide All Poeple, it began with the actor Michael Sheen delivering a mawkish soliloquy about how it all began, this idea of looking after people.

I couldn’t possibly tell you from whence this comes, but I know it’s older than 70 years.

I seem to remember being told that another JC preached such sermons to his devotees two millennia ago.

Before that, numerous ancient peoples and civilizations are known to have practised medicine and attempted to use their limited knowledge to treat the sick and wounded.

Canterbury Archaeological Trust director Paul Bennett was on a team which excavated a cave in Kurdistan, the very cradle of civilization. There they found evidence that the people who inhabited this part of the world 15,000 years ago practised their own form sociailzation. That is, they too cared for the unwell, the elderly and the lame.

Sheers’ poem is proper pass the sick bag stuff, but at least it acknowledges that looking after one another is rooted deep in the human psyche. But if it is, then why pretend that the NHS – which is simply the method by which the state administers health – is somehow the epitome or most glorious manifestation of a most human, indeed animal, instinct?

The answer can be found not in the hospitals, doctors’ surgeries or even in people’s homes. It can be found in the activity which surrounds it.

Look again at the protesters marching in London. They aren’t people engaging in politics – they are worshippers practising a religion. The placards they wave, the slogans they chant, the badges they wear are articles of faith.

They are like the medieval pilgrims who walked barefoot to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral or the 14th century Flagellants of northern Europe and England who beat themselves to prove their devotion to God.

But just because organised religion has continually waned since the 18th century, it doesn’t mean our 21st secular society is devoid of religious fervour.

As Lord Lawson once pointed out the NHS is now the closest thing we have to a religion. And people are desperate to believe in something.

Look at the language the worshippers use to describe the health service. They tell us it is sacred. The nurses are angels, the doctors saints: they perform miracles.

Nye Bevan, secretary of state for health 1945 to 1951

And just like the zealots who persecuted heretics, the NHS’s most ardent devotees will do whatever they can to protect it from any variety of deviation from Nye Bevan’s holy scripture – especially if that involves any kind of marketization aimed at improving efficiency and eliminating waste.

But any attempt to achieve this is necessarily met with the accusation that it amounts to the unspeakable sin of privatization.

Even the Conservatives, who are depicted as devils in this tale, understand that any attempt to carry out wholesale reform of the NHS is electoral folly – if not suicide.

Theresa May has been speaking of pumping more money into it, reinforcing that most facile argument that all the health service needs is more cash.

Well, so do the roads, the military, the schools, the police, transport, the judicial system, and so too do the people who will be asked to pay for it: me and you, the ordinary people of the United Kingdom.

A recent article in The Spectator magazine suggested that the next general election would be a referendum of the health service. Oh, please no.

Look, I want people to have access to the best possible health service. I just know that the NHS is not the thing to provide it – especially as we are living longer and as our health needs are becoming more complex.

But instead of allowing the market to figure out a way of meeting demand, we are saddled with a superannuated system devised in the 1940s.

Like anything supplied by the state, the NHS essentially functions through a system of rationing even though we have somehow persuaded ourselves that it should operate as a limitless health insurance policy meeting people’s needs always and immediately.

Indeed, as the doctor and writer Theodore Dalrymple once observed if every person using the NHS was offered every treatment which could possibly benefit them, then all other economic activity would stop.

Sadly the legend of what the NHS is and what it can be is impervious to reality.

Until that changes we’ll just have to endure the feverish religiosity it provokes – everything from Danny Boyle’s atrocious dancing nurses at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics to the eulogising of orthopaedic back pillows and saline drips.

Oh God, I’m suffering from exposure to sentimental gibberish and tawdry politics. Nurse…


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