Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

17 August 2009

The debate on the National Health Service is a proxy for a debate on nation-specific ideologies and policies

I’ve been particularly struck in the past few days by the extent to which the debate on the two main parties’ commitment to the principles and funding of the NHS has been completely blind to its English dimension. I suppose this should not come as any surprise, as it’s totally normal for Labour and the Tories to discuss England-specific matters as if they related to the whole of the UK. But this time, the blanket ignoring of the fact that the debate is relevant to England alone has been total, not only on the part of the politicians involved but also the media and bloggers. What is it about the National Health Service that makes us blind to its national specificities?

I suppose part of it is that the NHS is one of those national British institutions we like to think of as being present and valued to an equal degree in all parts of the UK, like the BBC, the Royal Family (for some, at least) and Parliament itself. But like Parliament and, to some extent, even the BBC, the national character of the NHS has been fundamentally changed by devolution. There are now four NHS’s (one in each of the UK’s constituent countries), with four government departments looking after them, four separate organisational structures, and separate funding arrangements. As with all legislation and social policy for England, the NHS in England is looked after by the UK government and the UK Department of Health. So although the government and Westminster politicians discuss policy for the NHS in the British terms relating to the level at which policy is made for it (at the UK level), the NHS in question is the English one, not a British one as such, which does not exist any more after devolution.

Given the apparent total unwillingness of the parties and the media to engage with the fact that the NHS whose future is being discussed is the English one, it is necessary to ask what they have to gain in ignoring this fact. In essence, the parties are trying to avoid framing an ideological polarity in national terms: ‘English’ political philosophy and social policy = support for privatisation, market principles and a reduced-size public sector; ‘British’ ideology and policy = support for nationalisation, state control of essential services and a generously funded public sector.

The truth of the matter is that, in England, the New Labour government has carried out major reforms to the NHS that have introduced more elements of privatisation than the previous Conservative governments were ever able to get away with; e.g. Foundation Trusts; autonomous GP surgeries competing for funding based on ‘performance’; public-private partnerships to build and run hospitals; outsourcing essential and ‘inessential’ services to private contractors; the introduction of patient ‘choice’, causing treatment centres to compete against each other to deliver the most lucrative and ‘popular’ treatments; more ‘consumer-friendly’ polyclinics being forced through despite the objections of practitioners fearing it would result in the break-down of individual doctor-patient relationships; etc. etc.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Tories’ actual policies as outlined in policy documents such as their Plan for NHS Improvement are pretty much more of the same: advocating a flexible blend of public-sector and private-provider approaches to deliver the desired health benefits supposedly more cost-effectively and efficiently. This document, by the way, is an absolute master class in the art of dodging the issue of which National Health Service, or rather which nation’s health service, is being discussed, as it studiously avoids referring to England in all but some statistical examples that strangely relate to England alone (strangely, that is, if you thought the policy document was referring to Britain when in fact it was dealing with the English NHS only).

So for all the hullabaloo over the past few days, it turns out that there are in practice no ideological differences between Labour and the Conservatives over the NHS (in England, that is); just minor differences in the methods to be adopted to deliver the same type of ‘reforms’ – by which is meant the introduction of market mechanisms that supposedly lead to greater efficiency, and improved patient choice and outcomes. But to listen to the politicians from both parties as they traded blows over this you could be mistaken for thinking that what they are really falling over backwards to agree about is their commitment to the principles of a generously funded, public sector-based ‘British’ NHS that lives up to its founding mission to provide health care free at the point of delivery.

Two aspects are key here: 1) a general ideological shift has occurred, prompted by the recession, whereby people’s faith that markets could go on delivering ever greater prosperity, and hence the mechanisms and means to continually improve the NHS, has been shaken; and they are worried that talk of increasing private-sector involvement in the health-care system is simply an excuse to make expenditure cuts. Labour are clearly playing on these concerns; and the Tories are having to emphasise the fact that they plan to increase expenditure on the NHS (in England) in real terms, and underplay the fact that they are still intending to introduce more private-sector mechanisms for allocating those resources and delivering care; 2) both parties have a strong vested interest in suppressing the fact that the marketisation of the NHS they have been carrying out and intend to extend even further is limited to England, whereas the separately administered and funded NHS’s in the other countries of the UK have continued on more traditional public-sector lines.

In other words, the parties’ concern to underplay their commitment to market principles in the NHS is of one piece with their need to suppress the England-specific character of those market reforms – by which I do not mean that those reforms are supported by the English people and reflect the English ‘character’ as such; but rather the mere fact that those reforms have been and would be driven through in England only. Why is this? Because both parties, for their separate reasons, want to be seen as parties for Britain, not England. Labour is appealing to its core support, particularly in Scotland and Wales where it has supported and provided funding (via the Barnett Formula) for traditional public-sector NHS’s. Ignoring the rather different market-orientated policies that have been specific to its management of the English NHS helps Labour to invoke the folk memory of the nationalised health service when it was indeed a uniform public-sector service for the whole of Britain.

The Tories, for their part, are desperate not to be seen as a party associated with the Thatcherite market economics and wholesale privatisations that always enjoyed far more popular support (though never that of a majority of English voters) in England than in Scotland or Wales. For the Tories, openly supporting private-sector initiatives to improve public health-care outcomes, even though (and in part because) such measures would be limited to England, would be electoral suicide in Scotland and Wales. The Conservatives would then be portrayed as the party for the wealthy south of England, intent on cutting public expenditure in England, leading to reduced budgets in Scotland and Wales via the workings of the Barnett Formula. And, in fact, this is true. As I stated in my previous post on this subject, although the Tories are actually pledging to increase expenditure on health in England, they’re planning overall cuts in spending, which will result in lower budgets for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, and possibly the need to cut spending on their NHS’s. So in fact, the Tories may end up spending more on the English NHS resulting in less spending on the NHS’s in the other UK countries.

So, by referring to the English NHS as the British NHS, the Labour Party are trying to gloss over their record in government, which has involved a substantial degree of privatisation of the service in England that the party has not supported in Scotland or Wales. And the Tories are also trying to downplay their actual support for market reforms of the NHS in England, which risks conjuring up the ghost of Margaret Thatcher and the idea that the Conservatives are the party for the wealthy and privileged of England (particularly, the south), not a progressive party for the whole of Britain.

But the consequence is that neither of the parties can be honest about their plans for the English NHS as such. Can we really be sure that if, by some freak, Labour got re-elected, they would not deepen their marketisation of the NHS – in England, only? And can we be confident that when the Tories set about extending the role of the private sector in the NHS (in England only), this will not become an excuse for delivering ‘efficiency savings’ that can then be passed on to the less efficient NHS’s in the other UK nations via the superior state funding they are guaranteed by the Barnett Formula? We don’t know, because the parties won’t tell us. They merely talk in misty-eyed terms of the British institution that is the NHS and how they stand firmly by its principles – even if those principles are put into practice in very different ways in England from the rest of the UK.

On one level, that’s fine: why shouldn’t the different nations of Britain develop the NHS along divergent lines in accordance with popular and national priorities? Why not, indeed? Except, in England, our actual priorities are not taken into consideration at all: the parties appeal to our affections for a fully state-funded and -run ‘British’ NHS and then they deliver an NHS in England that suits their own ideological and economic agendas, and is not what most English people are expecting, I would think. If the politicians actually engaged in dialogue with the English people and debated with them what sort of NHS we think we can afford, and the mix of public- and private-sector approaches that might best deliver the desired result, they might be surprised at the response they got. I don’t actually know what that would be: it might be more traditional public-sector, or more innovative, commercial and hybrid public-private. Genuine public consultation across the nation could deliver surprising results.

But the point is we’re not consulted, because a politics of dialogue between the English people and their political representatives would actually create a national English political community: one which might in turn design an English NHS that was worthy of the name. Instead, under the guise of a supposedly uniform British NHS that no longer exists, the parties canvass our support and that of those living in the other UK nations in order to deliver their own unspoken agendas for England. Unspoken, that is, because if they can’t even say the name of the country whose NHS they are supposedly standing up for, then such a health service is not a National Health Service that is truly designed with the best health outcomes in mind for the English nation.

And then they have the gall to talk of patriotism.

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