Where did the inspiration come from for our National Health Service? Historians have a habit, given that Nye Bevan was a Welshman, to look to Wales, to the miners’ and metalworkers’ mutual aid schemes at Tredegar and elsewhere.
Wessex has at least as good a claim. The Mechanics’ Institute at Swindon, opened in 1855 and paid for by the men of the Great Western Railway, contained the UK’s first lending library and ran many activities and classes. The same body that ran it also opened up health services to other workers. Bevan said of it that “There was a complete health service in Swindon. All we had to do was expand it to the country.”
This iconic institution closed in 1986, since when it has become increasingly derelict, and prey to vandals, arsonists and those who want to demolish it. This month the Victorian Society identified it as one of the top ten endangered buildings of its era anywhere in the UK. That it carries a Grade II* listing ought to ensure its protection, but doesn’t.
In fact, the Mechanics’ Institute is about as safe as the NHS. Bevan isn’t around to see what became of his baby. He’d be appalled if he was. What we’ve seen is a Conservative-led coalition drive through legislation to prepare the NHS for privatisation. The Coalition Agreement promised no ‘top-down reorganisations of the NHS’. (It didn’t rule out a policy that imposed a bottom-up one against the will of those at the bottom.) We’ve a Labour ‘Opposition’ whose credibility is shot to pieces after 13 years of support for ‘internal markets’, ‘trusts’ and ‘foundations’, all designed to soften-up the NHS for a more profit-oriented regime. This, after all, is a party comfortable with the idea of hospitals going bankrupt under the pressure of PFI schemes. Sir Richard Branson’s predatory offshoot Virgin Care has been seeking to run a range of health services in Wiltshire, as well as several other Wessex shires. How long before we see his logo plastered across Swindon’s Great Western Hospital?
We invite all who aren’t on the waiting list for a brain transplant to write a scenario for NHS 2020. Outsourcing all provision to the private sector, while protecting the principle of free-at-point-of-use, can only be Phase I. Then come ‘small’ charges to discourage frivolous patients, meet hospital food and heating bills, or contribute to the cost of ‘non-core’ treatments. The new 49% limit on private income sources for supposedly NHS hospitals is sure to be relaxed. Phase III means de-prioritising those unable to upgrade, lifting the regulatory ‘burden’, and letting the market rip.
Whichever party’s in power. Because while Bevan called the Tories ‘lower than vermin’, his own party have now spent too long scurrying around on the floor with them to aspire to anything better. Sue Slipman, Chief Executive of the NHS Foundation Trust Network, has described the idea of removing the 49% cap as "a really creative way of bringing more money into the health service". What readers may not remember is that Slipman, a former President of the National Union of Students, was first a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, then joined the Social Democrats in 1981 as a convert to Thatcherism. The destruction of the NHS is a long-term strategic goal of the spoilt hippy Left, their revenge against the working class for lacking revolutionary spirit. And the toffs round the cabinet table are delighted to oblige.
The recent launch of the National Health Action Party shows the degree of despair that so many folk feel at the way the three-headed dog of London politics is sinking its fangs into the things we treasured. The NHAP intends to stand against leading Tory politicians across the land. (No need in Wessex, of course: our policies are already 100% behind the NHS, so its supporters need only rally behind us.)
Labour have issued their ritual denunciations about ‘splitting the anti-Tory vote’. Yawn. Heard it all before. Labour’s definition of a democratic election is one where the Labour candidate wins, and not otherwise. In fact, the best way to eliminate any need for tactical voting is to introduce proportional representation. (It was Labour policy between the wars: how come it isn’t now?) That way we can choose our own alternative, to all three of the big Tory parties with their London bases and cosy links to the City. Labour might be shocked to find that, given a proper electoral system, the alternative turns out to be the biggest bloc of all.
Scotland and Wales have proportional representation and no-one is dismantling their NHS. On the contrary: both countries have put the privatisation process into reverse, with NHS trusts being largely abolished and radical democratic reforms now on the agenda. But then they have devolution. Which, if you listen to the London parties, is something patients in Wessex just don't deserve.