[A slight divergence of theme]
As an election looms in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the National Health Service has become the usual political football. All political parties now claim to love it and want to hug it, and squeeze it, and spend eye watering sum of money on it. Because, for the next three weeks or so, they truly ‘care’. Sincerity, once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
A UK politician, Nigel Lawson, once called the NHS “the nearest thing the English have to a religion”. This, of course, rather pissed off the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. Forgetting that England is not the only country in the United Kingdom is something English politicians just, unconsciously, do. They now wonder wonder why the Scots are all going to vote for the Scottish National Party in a few weeks time. ‘But how could anyone possibly dislike us?’ Oh well.
But what is the NHS? It is, to state the bleeding obvious, a National Health Service. It is paid for out of taxes which are gathered with the usual threats of punishment and fines. The Government then hands it out, well over a hundred billion pounds (~$150Bn), through a mind-bogglingly complicated bureaucratic system, losing vast chunks as it goes.
What pitiful sum finally remains is spent on the healthcare of the people of the United Kingdom (including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales). Although Scotland would claim it now has its own NHS, sort of. As would Wales, and Northern Ireland, sort of.
Whatever country you are in, the key underlying principle of the NHS is that it is free at the point of use. If you turn up at a GP, or accident and emergency, or hospital, whatever is wrong with you, you are charged, not a penny. Yes, it is free.
Actually this is not quite true. Dentistry used to be part of the NHS, but most people now pay for dentistry. Many people also pay for prescriptions, and it is eye-watering expensive to get a decent hearing aid. Also you cannot get medical equipment for free, e.g. a nebuliser. So the NHS is mainly free, but this concept is being sneakily eroded.
I know that many Americans believe the NHS to be some terrible ‘communist’ system where you queue forever, cannot get expensive treatments, and people wither and death in dimly lit hospital corridors whilst uncaring staff blow their noses on your sheets and cackle as they stride past in their jackboots. The NHS, at least as reported over here, seems to be held up as the poster child of an ‘evil’ system by those on the right wing of American politics.
I would just like to point out that it costs less than a half (as a percentage of GDP) of American healthcare. Yet, almost all measurable outcomes for health in the UK are better than in the US. Looking at the single most important outcome, which is overall life expectancy; people in the UK live longer than in the US. As do, it should be added, the French, Germans, Italians, Danish, Swedish, Spanish… Indeed, in virtually every way you choose to measure it, US healthcare comes last of all developed countries in the Western World. Just saying. So, the NHS may not be perfect, but please, please, let us not drift into US style healthcare provision.
However, having said all this, I still have a huge problem with the NHS. In that, it is no longer a ‘free at the point of access healthcare delivery system paid for out of taxes’. It has become ‘The NHS.’ Sounds of trumpets and a celestial choir. A kindly bearded figure sits on a throne in the clouds, beaming, surrounded by angels. Hallelujah, hallelujah.
Many years ago, the one thing that Margaret Thatcher said which, more than anything else, marked her out as an evil witch (in the eyes of many) was when she said that ‘there is no such thing as society.’ This is all that most people remember her saying, and they still hate her for it.
It marked her out as an uncaring monster, which is why they song ‘The witch is dead’, from the Wizard of Oz, got to number on in the UK charts shortly after she died. Not, perhaps, the UK’s finest hour.
In fact, the full quote was as follows:
“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.” http://briandeer.com/social/thatcher-society.htm
As for me, I don’t really believe that there is such a thing as ‘society’ either. But not, perhaps for exactly the same reason as Margaret Thatcher. My problem is when an abstract concept becomes a real thing which is a form of ‘magical thinking.’
For example, on the left we have those who believe in ‘society’ and ‘the NHS’. On the right we have those who believe in ‘the Market.’ As in, the market won’t like this, or the market won’t like that. When the EU tries to bail out Greece, we are told that the Markets will stop this from happening. This idea, I believe, derives mainly from Adam Smith’s ‘The invisible hand of the market.’
I say. ‘Can you please introduce me to the ‘the Market’. Could I have a word with the market to understand what it thinks?’ Oops, silly me. There is no ‘market’. There are just individual bankers and financial workers and economists. These, in turn, are just individual men and women, with a high percentage of psychopaths sprinkled in.
You see, Market does not exist, it purely an abstract concept. Yet we talk about it as if it were almost a person, an entity with powers beyond mere mortal man. God like, in fact. The ‘invisible and all-powerful hand.’ Kind of like the vision of Emmet in the Lego Movie when he saw ‘The hand’.
When Nigel Lawson called the NHS the nearest thing the English have to a religion, he was right. In that many people have also raised ‘the NHS’ to a status of an entity. A super-corporeal being, infused with special powers and goodness beyond our understanding. An ‘invisible’ hand that works in mysterious ways to improve the health of the nation.
However, until we can stop thinking of the NHS as some sort of deity, and start thinking about the most equitable way to fund and provide healthcare in a rational way, all discussions about healthcare will become bogged down in cant and emotion. People will continue to wave banners about emblazoned with ‘Save the NHS.’ Politicians will gaze at television cameras with that special, coached, excruciating limpid expression on their face talking about how much they care about ‘the NHS.’ Bleurrgghh!
Guys, there is no such thing as ‘the NHS.’ There are paramedics and porters and lab technicians and nurses and managers and doctors and some buildings and equipment. What is the best way to use these resources to provide the biggest bang for your bucks? End of.
Sorry, I shall start slagging off statins again next week.