Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

7 October 2011

National Health Service or national myth? Why UK Uncut’s ‘Block the Bridge’ protest is an empty gesture

In Norway, after the horrendous massacres carried out by Anders Breivik in July of this year, acts of remembrance were organised throughout the country in which people held aloft red roses: the symbol of Norway’s governing Labour Party, and once the symbol of Britain’s. By contrast, no red roses will be carried by the followers of UK Uncut, which is organising a ‘Block the Bridge’ protest this coming Sunday: a blockade of Westminster Bridge, just opposite the Houses of Parliament, to urge the Lords to throw out the government’s NHS Bill – the last chance of its being defeated or modified.

No, the red rose – international symbol of socialism, and incidentally also an iconic symbol for England in the form of the Tudor Rose – will not be in evidence. This is despite the fact that the protesters ostensibly wish to defend the socialist principles and legacy of the ‘British’ NHS, founded in the wake of the Second World War by Attlee’s Labour government. Instead, the plan is apparently to deck the bridge out in the blue and white colours of the NHS brand, or at least the NHS brand in England, which uses a lighter blue colour than the logos for NHS Scotland and NHS Wales, and a darker blue than the branding for Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland – the equivalent of the NHS in the Province.


The NHS (the one in England)

Darker blue for Scotland

Nice Celtic image and dark-blue font for GIG Cymru

‘NHS’ vanished altogether in this sky-blue logo for Northern Ireland

As these logos neatly illustrate, the ‘British’ NHS that UK Uncut’s valiant brigades will be standing up for is not the British NHS at all but the English NHS; and the Union government’s NHS Bill does not constitute a dismantling of the British NHS but a reorganisation of the English NHS along market principles. The British NHS as such was in fact dismantled by the last Labour government’s lop-sided implementation of devolution, which created four separate health services for each of the UK’s established nations (for the purposes of this discussion, Cornwall being assimilated to England). And it was that same Labour government that began the further dismantling of the English NHS that UK Uncut and its supporters are demonstrating against, as it was Labour that began the marketisation of the NHS that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is finishing off. And of course, Labour’s marketisation was based on the support of its Scottish and Welsh MPs, with whose help the introduction of Foundation Hospitals – in England only – would not have been passed.

So it is perhaps no wonder that those Blocking the Bridge on Sunday will not be sporting socialist red roses. Maybe the protesters realise deep down that it was Labour that first sold out the founding principles of the NHS: that it was to be both a state-run and -owned service, and a national service, available free at the point of use to all in Britain in a uniform, consistent way. And perhaps they realise that the NHS is already neither of those things and will be even less so – in England, that is – if the Bill goes through.

But try telling UK Uncut that the NHS Bill relates only to the NHS in England – and believe me, I have tried this week, via tweets and email – and you might as well be threatening to try and march the massed ranks of the English Defence League across Westminster Bridge on Sunday: stunning silence and a complete lack of engagement with the critique of UK Uncut’s discourse, which refers constantly to ‘Britain’ and the ‘UK’ in relation to this and many other England-specific issues, and never to ‘England’. Nothing. In fact, one imagines that UK Uncut would view demonstrators bringing banners displaying the Tudor Red Rose and flags of St. George on to the Bridge on Sunday more as potential reincarnations of Anders Breivik himself – whose somewhat tenuous Facebook links with some EDL members were joyfully paraded about in some parts of the media and blogosphere in the wake of July’s massacres – rather than as being like the noble Norwegian public standing up for a national institution and values that are under threat, and mourning its young.

Indeed, Sunday’s demonstration really has more of the character of an act of mourning for an NHS that no longer exists than a political campaign that stands a realistic chance of influencing the government and bringing about meaningful change. In this sense, the absence of socialist and English symbols betrays the lack of any coherent blueprint – to continue the logo theme – for how a truly nationally owned and accountable NHS might be organised and funded in England now that it is no longer possible to go back to the Bevanite British NHS. Because that’s what the protesters will be defending on Sunday: the founding principles of the British NHS, not the actual one in England that the NHS Bill relates to, or the potential for a better English NHS, run by an English government, that puts the needs of English people first.

In this sense, it seems to me that the UK Uncut protesters are more interested in engaging in political myth than practical reality. The NHS – the idea of a unified, UK-wide health service free at the point of use to all UK citizens – is still widely proclaimed as one of Britain’s great national institutions. Indeed, it is one of the things, alongside the BBC, that symbolises Britain itself: its national unity and values. But if people finally wake up to the truth that the British NHS no longer exists, it might also dawn on them that a unitary Britain no longer exists. UK Uncut’s failure to engage with these realities is therefore an expression of its, and many other people’s, profound inability to emotionally separate themselves from a British nation that is no more.

For my part, UK Uncut doesn’t cut it. Maybe the almost inevitable passing of the NHS Bill, for all the doubtless harm it will do to universal health-care provision in England, will finally convince people that the old Britain is dead and only an English politics, accountable to the English people, will put their interests before those of UK plc. I won’t be helping to Block the Bridge on Sunday, because I’d rather stand up for an English future than be stuck in futile mourning for the British past.

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