By Mike Fenwick
A flurry of numbers and initials litter most articles about the crisis in the NHS. Knowing what PBR, PFI etc means, or being able to quote the latest waiting list statistics for your local hospital can be helpful to activists. But are these facts and figures enough to explain why thousands of people are coming out in defence of the health service on demonstrations every week up and down the country.
The motivation comes from somewhere else. That is a basic commitment to a NHS, free and accessible to all. It’s more difficult to articulate the passion that people feel about the NHS. When a proposal is made to close a hospital where you may have been born, or where you sat over your ailing parent in their final days, the feelings are hard to define. Anger? Outrage? Something more...
What can be described is a deep rooted faith in a system that ought to provide care from the cradle to grave. Most of us have grown up with it, taking it for granted. Since 1948 the NHS has been taken as a fact of life and a basic right for all. Its foundations rested on the commitment to a basic social solidarity that found its full expression in the creation of the welfare state.
The Welfare State was created in a Britain where the economy had been devastated by the war amongst a generation of workers who had lived through the Great Depression. In reality “the nation” couldn’t afford to have a NHS. In its first year the budget went through the roof. The service many more times overspent its funds than the deficit that has produced this years crisis. Each year the budget was increased and no one in politics would dare challenge it. Not until Thatcher was there a systematic attack on the principle of solidarity that supported the welfare state.
When you attend rallies and meetings it is often pensioners who give the most impassioned speeches. A recent speech I heard, by a retired doctor, told of how inspired they’d been by Nye Bevan because his vision of health was not just something you could buy as needed but a fundamental right and the basis of social justice for all. To be part of that process, to be in at the start was to partake in a (very partial) social revolution that took away from the capitalists the right to make profit from misery and a was a genuine if small step in the direction of a socialist society.
Doing something for someone else without expectation of payment or some immediate return was an idea hated by Thatcher and her ilk. Society she tried to assert, did not exist. Today Blair makes the same kind of statements and not much more subtly.
New Labour deny it but each day brings examples of peple who live by the principle of solidarity.
There are few people working in the NHS who don’t work extra hours each week. This isn’t because their all slow and inefficient, unable to complete work on time. It is because it’s almost taken for granted that’s what you do. It not just doctors and nurses but those like the cleaners at my local hospital who have to work across three separate sites 20 miles apart. Their pay is low, they actually work for a private company but they don’t leave until the job is done. Because there is no spare capacity they bring themselves to work when they are ill, to keep things going.
They might not be the first at meetings or leading marches, they may not be the most obvious militants. But each day their commitment blows a hole through the idea that individualism is all there is. How would Gordon Brown explain such behaviour? Economically it doesn’t make sense; it’s not going to help you with a career. Where’s the selfish motive to explain it? Are such people so far out of step with society that they would be ridiculed rather than respected by the majority? Of course not! That’s why almost everyone who works in the NHS is more trusted than any politician.
Those who use the service are the same. Can you think of a time longer than a few weeks when you haven’t seen a local fundraising event, raffle or sponsored run to raise money for your local hospital. Consider the volunteers who run the hospital library and radio, the parents and carers who come together in support groups to help one another.
There is web of connections spun out from the NHS that bind and give form to our local communities and workplaces. The loss of a hospital, as 20 years ago the closure of a pit, can destroy these connections and weaken us all. It becomes almost instinctive to act to defend what gives value to our lives and those for whom we care.
Whilst Solidarity will continue to document and detail the effects of privatisation we’ll try not just to account for pounds and pence but detail the toll on ordinary lives. The true costs are to be measured in the effects in more difficult terms, our hopes and passions. The NHS still provides us with a beacon for the future, a future that is based on common effort to meet common need. Socialists shouldn’t forget that in our motivation for this future we should appeal not just to the intellect but the gut revulsion at injustice and inequality that drove our passion to act in this first place. In the fight for the NHS we can re-engage with these passions and recreate that sense of solidarity which will transform at first our movement and the unbridled passions to change society once again.
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