Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The NHS is greater than Magna Carta.

Hanley Park on a warm bank holiday Monday, I'm standing by the bandstand waiting with a small knot of protesters for a march that began in Buxton three days earlier to arrive. The march is part of a campaign against the privatisation of cancer care services in Staffordshire backed by unions with large memberships in the health sector and campaign group 38 Degrees.

As is the way with such things what happens for much of the time is nothing at all, every so often someone will rush past with a phone clamped to their ear saying the marchers are either about to arrive or certain to be delayed; then nothing goes quietly on happening just as before.

This gives gives the steadily growing crowd, most of whom seem to know each other from previous demonstrations to chat in the sunlight whilst the assembled bloggers and journalists kill time by photographing and interviewing one another.

I walk a little way off, sit down looking at the flags and banners, take a free badge from the smiley young woman from 38 Degrees and think about the NHS and the peculiar place it occupies in our political discourse.

No other issue has the power to prompt so much political piety from all three main parties, each in their own way pledges to defend it to the last on a seemingly daily basis, then equally often finds a way to mess it up with the very best of intentions.

The result of this has been one reorganisation after another, the introduction of an internal market and the imposition of a maze of often contradictory targets and initiatives. This has led to the latest brave new idea, namely that brining in a private company to run care services for some of the sickest patients will be more efficient than letting the NHS go on running things, not a view that has much convinced anyone apart from its backers in government.

Labour, the party that gave Britain the NHS back in 1948 and hasn't let anyone forget it since are violently opposed to the plan, on the surface at least. Dig deeper and things become a little more complicated, their role as defenders of free healthcare for all has been compromised by local MP Tristram Hunt describing opposition to the 'outsourcing' of cancer care as a 'knee jerk reaction' amidst suspicions that powerful interests were pulling his strings.

There is a stirring in the crowd, the march is finally here, hobbling into the park of three day old blisters with banners flying, as it crosses the bridge there is cheering and applause.

There might though be something of an 'edge' to the cheers, several friends in the crowd who had been there when the march got under way tell me there is considerable dissent over how the march seems to have been hijacked by the Labour Party. Looking around I notice there are several leading local Labour politicians milling about in the crowd looking for photo-opportunities.

Apparently the route was altered at the last moment to go through an estate where Labour grandees fear losing votes, leading to the Green Party and TUSC contingents pulling out.

The impression that we've somehow arrived at a Labour Party jamboree by accident is further confirmed by the majority of the speakers who address the crowd. First up is Phil Hunt, a Labour health spokesman in the Lords who tells us the march is a 'great signal' to the people of Britain that they should unite to defend the NHS, by voting for Labour of course. Only they will defend it from the Tory wreckers who want to smash it up, invoking an age old binary in a speech that sees mealy mouthed piety trampling real content underfoot.

Later Tristram Hunt will wrap things up with a studiedly dull speech high on pious mentions of how previous local M P s had used the NHS to raise living standards for working people. He doesn't, of course, allude to his own somewhat more problematic relationship with the service and its possible future. Quite what those decent socialists of the past would have made of such a piece of work is anyone's guess.

Rather more interesting speeches were made by ninety two year old Harry Smith who took the Labour Party conference by storm with his memories of life before the NHS. Here he spoke movingly about hearing through open windows in the community where he grew up the cries of people who couldn't afford pain medication dying in agony. He was, he said, 'haunted' by the fear that were the NHS to be privatised we would return to the days when healthcare was a luxury only the rich could afford. The creation of the NHS had, he said, played as great a part in the making of Britain as magna carta.

Less eloquent, but equally powerful, was the testimony of Sarah Perry, a 38 Degrees campaigner who had herself survived cancer thanks to being treated on the NHS. Her words served as a welcome reminder that behind the political wrangling is a whole library of human stories of pain and hope winning out over suffering.

Ray Tallis, a distinguished clinician and author of a book on the future of the NHS flayed the prophets of privatisation with weapons grade rhetoric. They were, he said, 'predators' who saw suffering as an 'opportunity to make a profit'; 'smarmy barrow boys' peddling a plan based on 'lies, myths and deception.'

The NHS was, professor Tallis said still the best, safest and most cost effective health service in the world, privatisation would, he said, damage services and put lives at risk. He ended by calling on his audience not to let 'Tory greed write your death sentence or that of your family.'

Equally stirring were the words of Christine Venables of Derbyshire NHS SOS, she said the plan to privatise cancer care was 'utterly wrong' and represented 'bad economics' and described its proponents as being 'harsh and manipulative' and 'pitiless profiteers.' There was, she said, no place for a market in the NHS.

Walking away past people who had come to the park to enjoy a rare sunny afternoon and been surprised by all the banners and speeches I reflected on what I had heard. There is still a deep passion on the left for defending the principle of healthcare being free for all, one people with no political affiliation tend to share. The worry remains though that what politicians of all stripes mistakenly think to be pragmatism could still write the death sentence of the NHS.

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