To say you care about the National Health Service has for some time been mandatory among those who profess to be concerned about Britain. To pronounce one’s affection for the NHS, to boast one’s determination to ‘save it’, or even to ‘♥’ it, is a public declaration of benevolence and compassion. It conveys the message that you are a good person.
And who doesn’t appreciate the NHS? Not many, apart from a few free-market fundamentalists. Most of us are concerned with issues of overcrowding, overspending, waste, bureaucracy and overstretched staff, precisely because we value the NHS. Yet most of us don’t define ourselves by this increasingly hallowed institution. Most people don’t actually worship the NHS.
A vocal minority, however, do. The former chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson once said ‘the NHS is the nearest thing the English have to a religion’. For some, the institution is less revered for what it actually does than for what it represents. It’s increasingly regarded as the last bastion of compassionate statism, a body imagined to be imperilled by evil Tories, a sacrosanct organisation with a holy multiracial workforce. It doesn’t just cure the ill or fix the broken. It’s held to be the very embodiment of empathy. Its doctors and nurses are modern-day saints.
And just as some real religions have taken a more extremist turn in recent times, so has NHS worship. Not a day goes by now without the BBC, the Guardian or the Daily Mirror issuing alarmist reports that everyone will die because of ‘NHS cuts’ by the nasty Tories. No anti-government, aggressively compassionate, devotional protest march is complete without a mock coffin bearing the NHS initial. And consider the literature that circulated before the by-election in Copeland. One Labour leaflet declared that if its candidate didn’t win, ‘mothers will die, babies will die, babies will be brain damaged’. Another called the by-election ‘a matter of life or death’. A third claimed that a Tory victory ‘will cost mums their children’. This is not so much NHS worship as NHS fundamentalism.
It’s no coincidence that NHS jihadism has emerged at the same time that the Labour Party is imploding. NHS worship materialised at the end of the 20th century to fill a vacuum as other traditional symbols of British civic life no longer came to be revered — the monarchy, Westminster democracy, the BBC, even ‘Britishness’ itself. The left was especially keen on demonising or mocking these bastions, so there’s something ironic about the fact that it now clings so desperately to the NHS, having destroyed all the other institutions which Old Labour voters once held in such affection.