Apart from immigration, health is arguably the most emotive of all public policy topics. Just as the former touches on identity and culture, the latter pertains to the health and wellbeing of our loved ones. It should then come as no surprise that sensible, analytical, fact-based debate on the topics is all but impossible, as most people’s knowledge of the subject is based solely on personal experience and or nebulous sentiments and ideals.
In Britain, this thinking with the heart rather than the head is especially acute with health, and its avatar is the NHS. Far from being simply another government agency, the National Health Services has morphed in an idea, almost a belief system. One need only look at the language used by the missionaries and NHS cult followers for proof. Most advocates of a particular system would champion their cause by quoting impressive statistics or measuring it against other systems in similar European countries. The faithful rely instead on loose and emotive language like “our NHS”, “national treasure” and “envy of the world”. Those who work for the NHS are lauded as saints in a way the police, lifeboat crews and fire service have never been.
We go even further with doctors and senior medical professionals, the new high priests. Their word is gospel, unquestionable. We look upon them with an awe and reverence that wouldn’t have looked out of place with medieval cardinals. Perhaps because they wield the power of life and death, or that their skills and knowledge are so beyond that of the average citizen, that the public and politicians have no choice but to genuflect before them.
But you can’t have a religion without temples, and thus we endow hospitals with a level of emotional significance that would seem bizarre on other public sector buildings. It doesn’t matter that they might not be particularly clean or efficient compared to those in other developed countries, because hospitals are more than simply places of function, they’re where we and our families are reminded of our mortality and more often than not, have that mortality deferred a little longer by methods we don’t understand. Hospitals are repositories of hope, fear, and (secular) faith.
It goes beyond people and buildings – we’ve even given the NHS its own creation myth and End Times prophecy. If the official dogma is to be believed, and to quote John 1:1, in the beginning was the word. The myth that’s been created and force-fed to a starry eyed national congregation is that before the 5th July 1948 Britain was a nation without medicine or doctors, where 40ft piles of dead were to be found on every street corner while plague stalked the land. Then lo, from on high there did appear and descend hospitals, with nurses and surgeons who also appeared from the aether.
The Apocalypse is just as colourful as it is fictitious – the dread warning that, like the pagan gods of old who abandoned their people if their faith was found wanting, our hospitals and their staff will be snatched away in the same blink-of-an-eye manner in which they were originally bestowed. Britain will once again be a benighted land, with not a pill or plaster to be found. The fundamental tenant of the quasi-religious creed is that it’s the NHS or nothing – no other choice exists. Religions are fond of dichotomy, after all.
If you’re going to have heroes and saints, you need heretics and apostasy. Criticism of any aspect of the NHS is tantamount to blasphemy. The detail of the criticism is irrelevant, to question orthodoxy is to engage in heresy, marking you out as at best a deluded unbeliever, at worst a dangerous threat that wants to kill poor people. Those of us who choose to go private are the new apostates, shunning all that’s good and right in favour of the immorality of the private sector. There’s an element of this sentiment with those who send their children to private schools (like socialist Diane Abbot), but it doesn’t illicit anywhere near the visceral reaction that private health care does.
Healthcare rightfully is an important issue and people have a right to be passionate about it. But with an ageing population and drug resistant viruses adding to an already dynamic landscape, health care is becoming too important to be left to ideologues and the sentimental. Keeping the NHS cosseted and immune from reform is not only irrational but dangerous.
Treating the NHS like a religion just isn’t healthy.