Posted on Wednesday, March 28th, 2012 at 2:54 am
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: Joe Macaré
‘Britain officially a dystopia.’
The headline may come from The Daily Mash – a sort of meaner spirited and fouler mouthed, which is to say British, version of The Onion. But “the country’s descent into a place ‘where everything is unpleasant or bad,’” as the story puts it, can’t help but sound all too real.
The level of health care privatization being implemented by the British government via the Health and Social Care Bill (and experts agree it amounts to privatization and will lead to more, even as ministers known to love the private sector deny it) is seen by many as essentially the end of the National Health Service (NHS). The editor of the respected medical journal The Lancet has described the impact of this “coming disaster” very bluntly: “People will die thanks to the government’s decision to focus on competition rather than quality in healthcare.”
From the perspective of a Brit living in the United States, it seems as if my country of origin is busy getting rid of the best thing left about it. “The NHS was one of the few things that made me genuinely proud to be British,” concurs journalist and author Laurie Penny, who is also currently stateside. She told me via email:
“Watching it eviscerated without a mandate, against public consensus – along with welfare, higher education and the legal aid system – is heartbreaking. The NHS has its problems, but living in the United States even for a short time makes you understand just how important socialized medicine is to the proper functioning of a nation state, and how morally repellent it is for any company to be allowed to turn a profit off the sickness of others. Now some of those same corporations are being invited in to run elements of British healthcare. “
Penny’s experience with US health care has most famously included a trip to the emergency room thanks to a rather nasty spider’s bite. My own experience over the last three and a half years has been both more prosaic and more frustrating. To my mind, most maddening of all is the bureaucracy and inefficiency that, contrary to the dogma of free market ideologues, characterizes the US health care “system” (more like a series of interlocking, Kafka-esque systems, all designed to generate profit from sickness rather than provide care).
Who wants that? Not the British public. Laurie Penny is entirely right that a hatchet is being taken to the NHS without a mandate, which explains the lack of transparency and authoritarianism of the process. The government doesn’t want a risk assessment for their “reforms” published (a draft leaked last night, though the Department of Health has refused to comment on it thus far), and meanwhile protests that have been held with the aim of quite literally conserving a beloved British institution, a pillar of the welfare state, have been policed as if they were radical demonstrations aiming to smash the state.
The Conservatives very explicitly lied about their intentions: a famous and frequently parodied campaign poster featured Tory leader and now Prime Minister David Cameron promising that he wouldn’t cut the NHS. Even then the Tories still couldn’t actually win the election outright and required a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to form a government – which ought to have meant that Britain got a watered-down, less-Tory version of the Tory agenda. Instead, what the country is being subjected to is Thatcherism on steroids.
In place of free healthcare for UK citizens, the government is providing free labor for corporations: “Jobseekers have been made to do compulsory unpaid work for up to four weeks after refusing to take part in the voluntary work experience scheme,” reports The Guardian.
And there are all kinds of other nasty Tory plans in motion to make Britain a more grim, awful place. They plan to kick out immigrants from outside the European Union who earn less than £35,000, which is to say almost half the country’s nurses. Cameron’s cuts to disability benefits are so severe as to have even prompted the departure of long-term members of his party – appalled by the “endless attacks on disabled people and their right to independence and full equality” – and fierce opposition from columnists for The Daily Mail, usually a bastion of right-wing meanness.
How did things get so bad, so fast?
The answer requires understanding that all three main political parties in the United Kingdom deserve a share of the blame.
Chronologically, we should start with the leadership of the Labour party, for tacking to the right for almost two decades in so many areas of policy and rhetoric that they achieved two terrible things: they shifted the national political discourse to the right, and triangulated themselves into an unelectable corner. Whether it was their own constant series of NHS “reform,” the ways of foreign aggression pursued by Tony Blair with a messianic fervor that revealed him to be, basically, a psychopath, or a succession of hang ‘em, flog ‘em Home Secretaries committed to squashing civil liberties and vilifying Muslims and immigrants, by the end of Gordon Brown’s sorry tenure it was easy to forget that the Tories would actually be worse.
Then there’s the Lib Dems, whose leadership showed that they were interested in being in power above all else, to the dismay of those who voted for them under the impression that they were interested in being liberal or democratic.
But the most blame should be saved, of course, for the Conservatives, who deep down have always wanted to get rid of the NHS. After all, its creation was spearheaded by Aneurin Bevan, a socialist who accurately described the Tory Party as “lower than vermin.”
The fact that a system featuring three main parties – yes America, three! – could end up offering a country no more of a chance of escape from the tyranny of free market economics and austerity for the people is depressing. It illustrates that it’s the Western political class as a whole that needs drastic “reform” (in their new definition they created which means “dismantling”).
This was also illustrated by the lavish welcome David Cameron was given by President Barack Obama recently at a state dinner. “In good times and in bad, he is just the kind of partner that you want at your side,” Obama said of the man who killed the NHS. “I trust him.” With these two in charge, God help us all, whichever country we’re in.
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