When you reflect on the lives of working-class folk from the past, they seem dominated by the monster of poverty and its impact on health. As a teenager, my friends and I roared with laughter at the Python sketch, “We were so poor we used to live in hole in t’ road ...”. And I always remember sniggering a little when my mother used to shake her head at ostentatious extravagance and wastefulness; she’d say “People today don’t know they’re born.” You see, to my generation, working-class poverty seemed like something from the distant past, and of no real relevance anymore. At school we learnt about the Tudors, Charles I and the Divine Right of Kings, William Pitt the younger, Disraeli and Gladstone; the only historical thing we needed to know about anywhere east of Calais was Napoleon. Nobody at school taught us about universal suffrage, the trade union movement and the establishment of a welfare state. As a consequence, those of us born in the post-war generation often took our lives for granted. We were protected from humiliating poverty by the welfare state, our health needs were taken care of, and everyone had a right to a free education up to and including university.
When I went to college in London, I received a grant from West Glamorgan Education Authority. In those days, 1974-6, homelesness didn’t appear to exist. You’d come across an occasional wino, but street-dwelling teenagers, ex-servicemen, and men and women, just like you and me, who’d fallen on hard times and ended up sleeping in doorways, were hard to find. This changed quite dramatically fairly soon after Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. These days, homelessness and rough-sleeping are a reality in every town and city, and as a society we seem largely, rather tragically, to have become inured to it. Thatcherism was based on the philosophy of Friedrich Hayek, which saw competition as the be all and end all; the great enemy of ‘Neo-Liberalism’ was high-taxation and over-regulation. Thatcher embraced Hayek’s beliefs with a religious zeal. She sold off our council houses and let us buy shares in our nationalised utilities and building societies; basically a few got to own what had previously been owned by all of us. This way of thinking has gone on, and seems to have contaminated political thought of every persuasion; alarm bells should have been ringing when Thatcher described Tony Blair as her greatest achievement.
The Conservatives in my experience have never lived up to what appears to be implied in their name. When I was a boy they dismantled our marvellously comprehensive railway network, which would have been so useful today given our environmental concerns regarding air-pollution, then when I was a young man I watched with horror as they wrecked our manufacturing industries. They decimated our coal industry, ruining whole communities because of their vicious ideology, but have continued to run our coal-fired power stations with coal largely mined overseas. I believe a large percentage of the coal burnt in British power stations today comes from Russia.
I believe that everyone alive today in Britain owes a debt of gratitude to the 1945 Attlee Labour government and the establishment of the welfare state as we know it. This great legacy has been seriously eroded by the Conservatives and by New Labour over the last forty years. If the Tories win this upcoming election, the NHS as we currently know it will cease to exist - they have plans to dismantle, package and parcel off bits of it to private investors; in fact, the fire-sale is already underway. If you don’t believe me take a look at the Naylor report. This video by Chris Holden about the Naylor report is very worthwhile - Theresa May Fully Supports the Naylor Report .
Austerity is part of Tory ideology: they were happy to bail out the banks to the tune of £850 Billion (our money!) because they said they were too big to fail, but the NHS, which has been underfunded for decades and requires an urgent cash injection of about £30 Billion, is too big to save. Take a look at how much of its GDP other countries spend on healthcare for their citizens: How Does NHS Spending Compare With Health Spending Internationally.
Take a look too at the introductory leaflet to the NHS which I placed at the top of this blog post. Its wording is beautifully sensitive, don’t you think? My great-aunt (born in 1887) who never had any money, was terrified of being so helplessly poor she’d have to rely on charity. In the 1970s she still used to speak of her fear of ending up in the workhouse. She always had a small amount of savings set aside to pay for her funeral expenses so she wouldn’t be a burden on her family. One of nine children, only four of whom survived to adulthood, her generation knew poverty, ill-health and the reality of early death, and they were rightly proud of the NHS.
The Tories are busy dismantling our welfare state. They love to blame migrants, health tourists, and feckless layabouts who live on benefits, and now, obliquely, the old for our woes. Their propaganda consists largely of lies used to divide us. Our nurses who care for us in our health service have been forced in some cases to use food banks. Our young people and vulnerable families can’t afford to live in decent housing for a fair rent, while huge numbers of properties in London and other cities lie vacant because their overseas owners have bought them as investments. I know disabled people who have had their benefits cut or have been deemed fit to work when they clearly are not. This is the most destructive, reactionary government I have seen over my lifetime - perhaps this is because after forty years of Neo-Liberalism the icing on the cake has simply become so very frail.
The NHS is in crisis. Let’s not be the generation that allows this jewel to slip through our fingers. The banks were bailed out - let’s support our young people, provide for our disabled in a way that allows them to live with dignity, care for our elderly like any decent caring civilised society should, and let’s properly fund the NHS!
Please, think about what kind of society you want to live in. Help to save our NHS.
Make your vote count on 8 June!