Magazine article The Spectator

Sometimes It Takes a Foreign War to Solve a Domestic Crisis like the NHS

Magazine article The Spectator

Sometimes It Takes a Foreign War to Solve a Domestic Crisis like the NHS

Article excerpt

People of my father's generation tell me that after the second world war the world looked different for more than the obvious reason. Abroad, of course, a great conflict had been settled by force of arms. But at home the process of war had changed the way people thought and felt, not just about international politics, but about each other, about citizenship, public service and social justice. Historians say this helps explain what might otherwise appear as perverse: the defeat of Churchill's party at the 1945 general election.

There are some obvious reasons. A prolonged national emergency in which patriots stood shoulder to shoulder would have had a degrading effect on the class system; war had forced Britain to pilot a sort of emergency socialism; the free market had become a dangerous luxury, and profit unfashionable; and war had raised returning soldiers' expectations of the rewards of peace. We can easily see how such changes in human outlook would have influenced the political climate.

But I wonder whether there is, too, a subtler way in which the diversion of a nation's attention to a gripping but temporary crisis of a theatrical kind can alter the mood afterwards. A huge distraction outdoors can help us, when we return to the hearth, to get domestic things into perspective.

When we have become overwrought we are well advised to sleep on it, or take a holiday. Better even than rest or recreation is to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into another and unrelated task for a while mow the lawn, clean the car, bomb the hell out of a small, defenceless country - then return to the original problem. When we do, we often find the difficulty less daunting and the answers clearer.

This, I think, is not only because a second look suggests new options; often we were aware of the options from the start. What afflicts - and what taking a break cures is having got our teeth so locked into one argument that we cannot draw back and balance it against others. Positions become entrenched; people and parties get stuck; rigid positions are taken up; promises and ultimatums are given; pride and anxiety tangle into impasse. A very loud bang somewhere over the horizon can be just what we need to shake us out of it.

Beneath the fog of this unwise but horribly diverting 'war' on 'terror' I sense a quiet shift taking place at home. Our rigid 20th-century mental model of the way a national health service should be constructed is gently loosening. We can now imagine its coming apart.

And no, have no fear that I am about to launch another pamphlet, fly another kite, commend an exciting new think-tank report. I have no expertise in this subject and no ambition to acquire it. I have little idea what should replace the NHS we've got. Well-documented plans have been falling stillborn from the press for years and there is no shortage of ideas. That is not what I am writing about.

I am writing about the way an idea's time comes. It steals into our heads and homes at night when we are dreaming perhaps of evil, bearded men in caves and tremendous explosions in faraway mountains - and we awake to find the unthinkable suddenly thinkable and the thinkable thought.

And it is all so obvious. Not only is it obvious now, but we struggle to imagine how it was not obvious yesterday. Which of us - even those who do not think of ourselves as right-wing head-bangers - has not read and understood a hundred times the case for re-examining the whole Bevanite ideal of a universal, monolithic, nationalised health service delivering an absolutely standard product, unrationed and free at the point of use? …

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