When Fraser McAlpine began writing a book charting what’s great about Britain, alongside dunking biscuits he knew there was one thing he had to include – the NHS.
To put it bluntly, the only reason there is a National Health Service is because of the Second World War. With families giving up their husbands and sons and homes, sending their children off to live with strangers in the countryside and pulling together to try to fend off the unpleasant attentions of the Germany army, there was no possibility that society would simply go back to the way it was once the fighting had ceased.
Everyone played a part in the war effort, and everyone would continue to play a part in pulling Britain back together. The NHS is not a hallmark of a socialist state; it’s reward for a country that made a supreme effort to unite in order to prevent invasion and then had to keep pulling together once the threat had gone, because too many doors had been blown open. Sometimes literally.
That’s not to say it was welcomed with open arms when it started or that it continues to operate free from criticism now. There will always be people who maintain that nationalised industries breed inefficiency in a way that would never be aceptable to privatised firms and who complain the service is abused by people who won’t take care of themselves.
Moaning about the NHS is definitely a thing Brits like, but that’s basic human nature when presented with something that appears too good to be true. But if the NHS is threatened, that’s when the rows break out, especially when it started to look like private firms had secured NHS contracts to do, in effect a worse job, for the same money. Public money.
And the last few years have seen the heat go up a notch as the media narrative got stuck on austerity and then went looking for spongers to attack. That’s individual spongers from a poor background, you understand, not those private firms.
There again, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London featured a section devoted to the NHS, placing it alongside beloved children’s characters and the best of British pop music as institutions to be proud of. And that ceremony was the single biggest catalyst for the Brits to take off their sceptical spetacles and get unreservedly excited about themselves, after months of moaning about gridlock, bus lanes and ticket allocation. Had the inclusion of the NHS sounded as a wrong note, this would not have happened.
Yes, there are people who treat it like a particularly frustrating safety harness on the rollercoaster of life, people who have lost loved ones or been treated shabbily by NHS staff at the point of the greatest vulnerability and people who have become enraged by having to wait hours in Accident and Emergency to be seen by medical staff who simply have to keep the conveyor belt moving as fast as is humanly possible. But these criticisms, now matter how forcefully stated or righteously felt, can’t compete with the positives.
By which I mean this: find me a British person who hates the NHS after his or her partner’s life has just been saved; after she has just given brith to her first child, or her third; after he has just been told a beloved relative has come out of a coma or woken from a life-changing operation.
Find me someone who set off for the day in normal shape, had an accident, and came home a month later in an entirely different condition – having spent time being carried aloft by the dedication and diligence of doctors and nurses who are clearly doing the best they can under extraordinarily trying circumstances – and still complains of gross inefficiency and socialist handouts.
I’m not saying those people don’t exist. I’m saying their the ones you may have to wait longest to get a thank-you card from after Christmas.
Fraser McAlpine is the Grimsby-born author of Stuff Brits Like, which is published by Nicholas Brealey, priced £9.99.
From The Yorkshire Post, 5 August 2015.