Awarding the George Cross to the NHS seems a bit much, though in keeping with our devotion to the aspirin-dispensing national religion. The health service has been bestowed the highest civilian gallantry medal for its public service and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s not that health professionals don’t deserve recognition. They do, though I’d have thought paying nurses better would be a more tangible nod. And it’s not as if there is no precedent for an institutional recipient, with the entire nation of Malta honoured in 1942. Still, admirable though the NHS’s pandemic response has been in places, it’s not quite single-handedly holding back the Luftwaffe and the Regia Marina. (The health service might feel some trepidation about another precedent: the Royal Ulster Constabulary. One year after getting its silver cross, the RUC was no more.)
No, it’s just unsubtle, a bit of naff pandering from a government that still doesn’t fully understand its appeal to Red Wall voters but knows they’re quite keen on the health service. The latest commissions for the fourth plinth were announced today. It’s a wonder they haven’t tried to stick the NHS on there yet.
Today is special for another reason: it is 73 years since the founding of the NHS. A feast day for its idolaters, of course, but a testament to the failure of the much-fretted but little-evidenced Tory plot to sell it off. It is an article of faith on the simpleton wing of the left that the Tory government of the day is always five minutes away from flogging Aneurin Bevan’s legacy to some shark-grinned venture capitalist who’ll install coin slots on kidney machines. When Sajid Javid took over as health secretary, Labour MP Zarah Sultana crooned the old standard ‘The NHS isn’t safe with the Tories’ while Unite warned of ‘the accelerating privatisation of services’. (Naturally, these people don’t object to the biggest network of private healthcare providers in Britain: GP surgeries.)
By my calculation, the NHS has been run by Conservative (or, in the case of the Cameron-Clegg coalition, Conservative-led) governments for 62.7 per cent of its lifespan, or just shy of 46 of its 73 years. I’ll grant you the Tory party can be slow-witted, ham-fisted and arse-elbowed but even it wouldn’t take half a century to stick a price tag on some hospitals and a monster supply of squeaky-wheeled trolleys.
Margaret Thatcher may have harboured dreams of ditching state-delivered healthcare free at the point of use in favour of an insurance model but today’s Tories are busy handing out gallantry medals to the crowning glory of post-war socialism. If the NHS is a faith-based initiative, the Conservative party is like the Church of England: it doesn’t necessarily believe but it’s willing to go through the motions. At some point, Labour will have to start fighting the opponents it has and not the ones it wishes it had.