On Wednesday 10th April, as the Conservative Party was granted use of both Houses of Parliament for a state sponsored party political rally , Channel 4 broadcast the first of a new series of “24 Hours in A & E”
As lesser and lesser light stood in Parliament to drone on about the greatness of Margaret Thatcher, the episode turned – entirely unintentionally – into a set of parables about the neoliberal project of which she was such an enthusiastic member.
On a London street, a migrant from Europe (one of those people so demonised by The Conservative and UKIP parties, and for whose presence the Labour Party is now forced to apologise) was assaulted randomly and brutally and left in the gutter.
A passer-by did not pass by, but tried to assist her and called for an emergency ambulance. His actions quite probably saved her life: but why did he do that? What was his economic gain? The answer is none: he acted out of a sense of empathy for a person in trouble and a sense of duty, of what was right. The young victim in the gutter was not a member of his family, but a member of his society.
There is such a thing as society.
In A&E a 90 year old man received care: in his own words he was always a strong man, but could not find the strength to pick himself up after a fall. It turned out this was a man who had lived a very individual life: but when his own strength was not enough, the National Health Service was there to pick him up and help him on his way.
There were no questions asked about patients arriving at this A&E other than questions relevant to necessary care. There was no worry about budgets or cost, as the patients were surrounded by staff and their bodies scanned with expensive, high-tech equipment. The only concerns were to save lives and deliver the best recovery. No hospital staff made moral judgments on the patients as they arrived, or worried about patients’ ability to pay bills.
There was no moral debate on responsibility when a child was brought in after a car accident. In a world of neoliberal individual responsibility, there is no such thing as misfortune: only failure. One doctor declared openly that he saw the purpose of A&E to manage the consequences of accidents in the literal sense: events unforeseen, unexpected, not caused by personal failure.
The National Health Service is fundamental, central to the British concept of society and consequently anathema to the neoliberal concepts of humans as individually responsible economic units. The NHS stands as a reminder of the courage of the postwar governments which, despite all the challenges, delivered the welfare state as a bulwark against the pre-war evils of ill-health, unemployment, and poverty.
The neoliberal project, the reactionary ideology developed and embedded into the UK democracy by the bonds forged between rightwing thinktanks, craven politicians, the greedy rich, and the corporate lobbyists (so frequently the same people) sees the NHS – correctly, from its perspective – as the ultimate prize in its war to destroy the society which it demands not so much does not, but must not exist.
For society to survive in the UK, the NHS must survive according to its founding principles. The alternative is for us all to exist as muggers, riding dark streets looking for the next victim, denying their rights and our obligations to them.