It’s as if devolution never happened and we were back in the ‘good old days’ when there genuinely was only one National Health Service. Not one single item – not one – in all of the news coverage I saw or heard yesterday on the reaction to Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s criticism of the NHS on US TV correctly referred to the organisation in question as the ‘English NHS’ (or, at least, the ‘NHS in England’), which is what they were actually talking about.
At least, David Cameron, Andrew Lansley (the Conservative Shadow Health Secretary (for England)) and Andy Burnham (the actual Health Secretary in England) can only have been referring to the NHS in England in their comments following Hannan’s contribution, as that’s the only NHS they either will have (if the Tories win the general election) or presently have responsibility for. But you couldn’t tell that from what they said.
David Cameron: “Just look at all the support which the NHS has received on Twitter over the last couple of days. It is a reminder – if one were needed – of how proud we in Britain are of the NHS. . . . That’s why we as a Party are so committed not just to the principles behind the NHS, but to doing all we can to improve the way it works in practice.”
Andrew Lansley: “Andrew pointed out that many of the NHS reforms promised by Labour, including practice-based commissioning, Foundation Trusts, patient choice and independent sector investment, have stalled under Gordon Brown. And he stressed, ‘All those who care about the NHS know that these are the kind of reforms that will enable us to achieve the combination of equity, efficiency and excellence which should be the hallmark of the NHS’.”
Andy Burnham: “I would almost feel . . . it is unpatriotic because he is talking in foreign media and not representing, in my view, the views of the vast majority of British people and actually, I think giving an unfair impression of the National Health Service himself, a British representative on foreign media”.
Let me note in passing what a complete and utter joke those last remarks of Andy Burnham’s are. Has Burnham suddenly transmuted into an English patriot, as it’s only the English NHS that he and the government of which he is a part has anything to do with? I don’t think so. Hannan’s not a ‘British representative’, i.e. a representative of the British government or parliament. But if he was, then doubtless Burnham feels his job would be to do what Burnham himself does: not so much misrepresenting the ‘British NHS’ abroad but misrepresenting the English NHS to the English public as the British NHS!
And as for that Twitter stream, don’t waste your time checking it out. It’s full of junk now, and I had to click down a couple of hundred entries before I got any reference to England that wasn’t either a porn link or a job ad, or indeed practically any reference to the political debate.
But actually, Twitter is quite a good metaphor for the debate: full of sentimental waffle but very little substance. It’s easy to prattle on about the NHS as a great British institution of which the people of Britain are rightly proud and keen to defend from unfair criticism from abroad. But the reality is that as a national-British institution, the NHS already no longer exists. It’s New Labour, not the Tories, that did away with it through devolution. And its the New Labour British government that did far more than the Tories ever did to privatise the NHS in England, with things like public-private partnerships to build and run new hospitals, the introduction of internal health-care markets, Foundation Trusts, and competition between GP surgeries and the new supposedly ‘consumer-friendly’ polyclinics, etc. Admittedly, while all of that was going on, the NHS’s of the other UK nations were – for good or ill – remaining more faithful to Labour’s traditional socialist principles, with fully public sector-based organisations amply subsidised by the English taxpayer.
Does it matter, though, whether you call it the ‘English NHS’ or the ‘British NHS’? Isn’t this just semantics? Well, I think the English believe in the principle of calling a spade a spade: if you are talking about something that relates to England only, you should at least have the honesty and courtesy to let people know that’s what you’re doing. Of course, on one level, it’s legitimate to refer to the ‘British NHS’ even when discussing policy for its English variant; i.e. when talking about the founding principles that are said to inform the NHS throughout Britain to this day: fully public-funded health care free at the point of delivery. But the point is those principles are not applied evenly, and equally, across the whole of the UK. There is no longer a single UK model for how public-sector health care should be funded and organised. And the model presently applied in England has moved further away from the NHS’s original principles than that in any of the other UK nations.
This does matter for the political debate going forward into the general election. Daniel Hannan has helpfully exposed a vulnerability of the Tories in England, because it’s clear that the Tories do support further reform of the English NHS along the lines set out by New Labour. Those Tory reforms mentioned above in the context of Andrew Lansley’s reaction to Hannan’s remarks (“practice-based commissioning, Foundation Trusts, patient choice and independent sector investment”) are precisely New Labour policies that the Tories claim the government has failed to deliver. If the Tories pursue them, they will indeed drive further marketisation of the NHS – but only in England. By appealing to the founding ‘British NHS’ principles, and by promising to increase NHS funding in real terms, the Tories are trying to make out that they back the traditional, fully nationalised model for health-care delivery in the UK. They may well support a generously public-funded health-care system; but in England, at least, the delivery model will involve a much greater role for private companies and market competition, which will inevitably lead to inequalities and increased variations in the availability of high-quality NHS treatment for different conditions in different parts of ‘the country’ – England, that is. But the more they talk up their allegiance to the traditions of the ‘British NHS’, the more they hope we won’t read the English small print.
Plus the Tories are also addressing the non-English electoral ‘market’, of course, and are hoping that the uninformed (misinformed) public there – again, through the emotive appeal to the NHS as a national-British institution – will be deluded into thinking that a Conservative government will have direct influence on health-care policy in their countries (which it won’t) and will stand guarantor for traditional NHS values there – which it may do, through acquiescence with the policy variations and funding inequalities that have flowed from asymmetric devolution and the Barnett Formula. But actually, a real-terms increase in public expenditure on health in England will not necessarily deliver corresponding and proportionately greater increases in NHS funding in the other countries of the UK. This is because public expenditure overall under the Tories is set to decrease, so that increases in the health budget will have to be paid for by cuts elsewhere. And a decrease in overall spending in England will result in even greater proportionate decreases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In other words, increased investment in the NHS in England may actually result in the need to cut the NHS budget in the other nations. While some of us in England might derive malicious satisfaction from what would in effect be a levelling out of healthcare apartheid (and, after all, the Tories have promised, dishonestly, to improve equality of NHS care throughout the UK), this is a wilful deception of voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the Tories appear to be promising to increase NHS funding throughout the UK; but actually, they’re talking about England only; and increases in the English health-care budget may indirectly lead to decreases in the health-care budget in the other parts of the UK.
But Labour can’t talk, either. This system of unequal funding and differing delivery models throughout the UK is the one that they set up; and to claim that they support a uniform UK-wide NHS organised along traditional lines is a pure, downright lie. Well, they might emotionally support it, with misty-eyed reverence towards Nye Bevan and the post-war settlement; but in practice, the New Labour government has already broken up that British NHS beyond repair. The truth of the matter is New Labour has run out of policy ideas for the NHS in England but has supported a traditional-type NHS in the other UK countries. So all it can do is appeal to ‘patriotic’ and nostalgic support for a great British institution that is no more (in England, at least) in the hope that it can deceive enough of the English people for enough of the time to secure another election ‘victory’ that will enable it to continue to cross-subsidise a traditional NHS in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through further privatisation of the system in England – as they have done since 1997.
Well, the English people won’t fall for that one again. But they might fall for the similar trap the Tories are laying. The English people need to have an informed debate on the type of health-care system they want in England; because that’s what the whole argument is really all about. Health care in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is dealt with separately by the devolved administrations. So it’s only the English system that the Westminster politicians can do anything about. By claiming, as David Cameron did yesterday, that the Conservatives are the “party of the NHS”, the Tories are trying to reassure the English people that the NHS is safe in their hands. But that’s not the point. There will still be an NHS; but what sort of NHS will it be in England, as opposed to the doubtless very different NHS’s that are developing along divergent lines in the rest of the UK? The Tories need to be honest and up front about the small print of their plans for England, and not obfuscate the whole discussion by misleading references to a monolithic British NHS that is no more. But so do the politicians of all parties.
After all, Mr Cameron, Brown and Co., you can’t fool all of the English people all of the time, even if you think you can.