In the mid 1960’s my grandfather went on, what we could call today, a fact finding and relationship building trip to the United States and Canada.
By then he was in charge of the Orthopaedic Workshop at Edinburgh’s Princess Margaret Rose Hospital and, I’ll modestly concede on his behalf, had developed a reputation for the quality and ingenuity of some of the designs and solutions he came up with to help the victims of diseases like polio.
So, in many ways, he went across the Atlantic as an ambassador for the National Health Service.
As he told it in later years the reception he got was overwhelmingly positive with staff in the States appreciative of not only the breakthroughs that NHS staff were achieving but also enthralled by the very concept of a National Health Service that recognised no distinction of wealth or class.
But one doctor quizzed him aggressively about the service. When my grandfather’s responses were overwhelmingly positive – a position he held throughout his life – the doctor dismissed him with the cracking line: “Commie bastard.”
It was the end of a short and less than beautiful friendship.
Being a contrary sort the exchange probably hardened my granddad’s resolve to be ever more evangelical in his praise for what was then, and checking his passport I see he arrived in October 1964, still a young and radical service.
And he really did believe that the creation of a free to use healthcare system, a system available to anyone who needed it, was an achievement for Britain to be truly proud of.
He would be both amused and angry that today the NHS has become a target of abuse for the American right. Amused that the views of that doctor are now the default position of talking heads on channels like Fox News.
Angry that the service he worked for, the service that allowed him to help thousands of British people and many others across the world and in America, is the target of such misrepresentation and scaremongering by people who choose not to acknowledge the essential goodness of the principles on which it was founded.
We can’t ignore the fact that the NHS has flaws. Some of those flaws are common to any large organisation. Some are peculiar to the NHS. Many of them can be blamed on politicians and the revolving door of policies that has passed for government in this country for too long.
We must also take some of the blame. It’s taken the interference of the American right – familiar hate figures for those on the British left – to rally us to the compelling #welovetheNHS trend on Twitter.
We’re too often complacent about the NHS, too often slow to defend it when it comes under attack. If an American wanted to build an argument against the NHS then a flick through the archives of our popular press would provide plenty ammunition. The misrepresentation and scaremongering begins at home.
When you speak to people they always have an NHS horror story. When you dig deeper most of the stories concern a friend of a friend, the details sketchy. Mistakes do happen – and in healthcare that can have the most terrible consequences – but more people get the highest possible levels of care than don’t. That remains something to be proud of, something to shout about.
Another family vignette. A few weeks ago my mum was in hospital getting treatment for a broken wrist. Chatting to one of the nurses she was horrified to learn the amount of theft that happens in the hospital. Patients and relatives steal anything and everything.
In sixty years we’ve gone from lauding the advent of universal healthcare to stealing the pictures off the wall when we go for treatment. Maybe it’s some of us rather than the NHS who should be having a long hard look at ourselves.
But for all that the NHS continues to provide a service that is the envy of much of the world.
Some might argue that if you work hard and save your money you shouldn’t have to pay for healthcare for the people that don’t.
That’s not a world view I share. It ignores the fact that many people who work incredibly hard still couldn’t afford to pay. It ignores the fact that children who have no control over the lives their parents choose to lead would be equally penalised by a country that had given up all pretence of fairness.
Making money shouldn’t absolve you of your moral responsibility as part of the community. The NHS is our most enduring and important monument to that principle.
Today thousands of people will receive treatment from the NHS. Some of it will be lifesaving, some of it will be minor but it will all be free. Many others will lose loved ones in NHS hospitals but even in their grief they will know that the staff will have done everything that could be done.
You must live in an upside down world if you consider that to be evil.