Magazine article The Spectator

The NHS Makes Me Wonder Whether I'll Ever Be a Proper Tory

Magazine article The Spectator

The NHS Makes Me Wonder Whether I'll Ever Be a Proper Tory

Article excerpt

Why don't you go private?' My seeretary had a point. She and I had found two plastic chairs together in the rather shabby Accident & Emergency waiting-room at St Thomas's hospital in London. I had just been told that the wait would be three or four hours, so Eileen, who is 67, had carted our in-tray and her shorthand notebook over the Thames from where I work at Westminster.

She also brought my laptop computer so that I could make a start on an article with which I was late, but when I plugged into the nearest wall-socket an apologetic nurse told me it was forbidden to plug private appliances into government mains. 'This is the NHS,' she said. There was a television on the wall and a Coke machine, if you wanted something to do.

Useless to argue, to tender payment for the few pence-worth of electricity used. She had her orders and was perfectly polite. All the staff sounded capable, human and helpful, but they were working under pressure.

But so was 1, and that was Eileen's point. This was supposed to be a working day. I had returned that morning from a weekend with my parents in Spain. During the flight from Barcelona I had realised that the accident which befell me the previous afternoon, as my sister tried to teach me to ski, was more serious than had seemed. The internal wrench when I flew headlong into a snowy bank had been a rib cracking. Returning to Britain, it did make sense for me to see a doctor straight away.

So why did I not go private? This waitingroom with scalded waiters and punched drunks made no sense. To spend an afternoon at St Thomas's robbed me (and my Times readers) of the parliamentary sketch for that day. No doubt my readers would bear up bravely, but for me the loss was real: the fun of doing it, and the fee too. I am freelance. A Commons sketch would have more than paid for a private consultation. I asked the nurse whether I could return in three hours when I would be closer to the head of the queue. The answer was no. Once registered one had to stay, and if anyone left they would be struck from the list and have to start again.

So there we all were, a slowly altering crew - at any one time about 50 souls of all ages, some bandaged, some cheerful, some mad, some bad, some in great pain, some with heads bowed, all waiting for half a day. Eileen was right: it would have been better to buy my way out of this. And not only for my own sake. To pay for my own treatment would shorten the queue for those who could not afford to. Why should the comparatively rich grab a share of scarce NHS resources? Would we think someone the more virtuous for keeping a council flat when he could afford a house, thus denying it to someone whose need was greater?

Yet ever since I was in politics myself, the idea of going private for medical treatment has seemed wrong, and still does. Why? Please accept that I could not possibly justify this in moral logic. I am a Conservative. I believe in the market, in private choice. I am not sorry that some people should become richer than others, or be able to afford better styles of life. These inequalities are necessary for a free society and economy to function. I had had absolutely no compunction, that weekend, about being able to afford to fly to the Pyrenees though many of my countrymen cannot. …

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