In a Civilised Society Health Care Is a Human Right, Not a Commodity; WEDNESDAY ESSAY in an Impassioned Polemic, Public Health Expert and Retired GP Julian Tudor Hart Argues That the Welsh Government Is Right to Reject Privatisation in the Welsh NHS

Article excerpt

* HERE has to be something better than this. So said David Cameron, so said Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, and so say we all.

Of course, that's why they are saying it. These days, we must all agree on everything.

Better than what? Better than capitalism, an economy where we do everything that is profitable, and nothing that is not profitable.

As many very important things must somehow get done regardless of profit - for instance, rearing happy children who treat themselves and each other with respect - capitalism is not by itself a sufficient foundation for a decent society. It needs something more. I suppose that's what our three UK political leaders are talking about: some magic ingredient we might add to capitalism, transforming it from ruthless greed into something better.

Speaking in parliament in 1901, Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour party and socialist MP for Merthyr and Aberdare, had a bit more to say about this than any leader seems able to conceive today. The 20th century, he said, was "a Mammon-worshipping age. Socialism proposes to dethrone the brute god Mammon, and to lift humanity in its place."

No-one close to leadership in the Labour party as yet dares wholly to deny socialist society as their objective, but even less do they dare to affirm it. Of course, the socialism of which Hardie spoke existed only in people's imagination.

Only after 1917 did it become a real social experiment, conducted almost entirely in a backward country, most of it still illiterate and close to feudalism, devastated by World War I and a further three years of civil war and armed invasion by 22 nations, including our own.

Predictably, that Russian experiment, and others essentially like it in China, Vietnam, and other less developed economies, failed to produce new societies anything like the restored humanity Hardie had imagined.

But these were not the only experiment in socialism. In 1946, when the British economy was on its knees, a Labour government nationalised health care.

From 1948 onwards, health care ceased to be a traded commodity, and became a human right. For health care at least, Mammon was dethroned and humanity was lifted to its place.

Speaking in parliament, Nye Bevan rightly declared that the National Health Service had set the feet of our doctors and nurses and all other health workers on a new path entirely. The aim of their work could become not profit for themselves or their employers, but to meet the human needs of their neighbours throughout the nation.

Nye Bevan and the Labour Party created a space within the capitalist economy where people could follow the rules of humanity, not the rules of the market. It was a space in which to learn, both how to care for everyone in a new way, and how to live better in a more humane society.

I qualified as a doctor in 1952, three years after the NHS began, when most of the shambles which preceded it had yet to be cleared away. Thanks to the NHS, I was able to serve an entire lifetime as a family doctor, teacher, and field researcher in two working class communities, first in London, then in South Wales, without ever having to ask my patients to pay me a fee, without ever having to ask myself whether patients could afford treatments they needed.

The NHS was a popular and successful experiment in socialism. I know, because I was there, at the bottom of the social pile where needs were greatest and resources were least. Few ministers of health after Bevan shared his vision of the NHS as the leading edge of a better society. Until Tony Blair began opening it up to privatisation, the NHS was so underfunded that the best most of us could hope for was its survival. Little thought was given to imaginative development, least of all to democratisation. …