People's History of the NHS

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  • 23
  • AUG

Exploring the Radical NHS

by Natalie Jones

As part of the Radicals Assemble: After Hours season at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, members of our team and speakers from Keep our NHS Public Greater Manchester gathered together to voice their thoughts, showcase their research and enter into lively discussion with the public, working under the banner of ‘A National Religion: Activism, Public Opinion and the NHS’. From our project itself, Jenny Crane, Jack Saunders and George Gosling formed part of the panel of speakers, covering topics such as the relationship between the local and the national, and considering how these might affect campaigning challenges and opportunities. The role of activism in the workplace was also discussed, questioning how this might be distinctive within the NHS, as well as the complex role of the use of graffiti in defending the NHS, and how this does – or perhaps does not – align with graffiti’s radical potential.

From Pia Feig and Sue Richardson, representatives from Keep Our NHS Public Greater Manchester, we gained great insight into both the history of their campaigning group, but also some sense of exactly just what it is that the NHS ‘means’ to many people. Pia and Sue were keen to stress that the NHS is ‘not just a folk story’ but an actual need in life, and that it is part of what it feels to be British for many people, and that this is reflected in the level of public support for strikes by NHS staff. They also highlighted that support for the NHS in fact tends to be episodic, and clearly linked to the specific services or even buildings and hospitals that members of the community regularly use. Again this raised the question as to how local support can be translated into wider collective action, while underlying such motivations was undoubtedly the sense that the NHS exists as a marker of a fair society.

Opening questions up to the audience sparked a lively and greatly informative discussion, where questions were asked that provide much thought for further study. One attendee asked ‘to what extent does the New Labour adoption of neoliberal ideas make it difficult to campaign against change?’ – highlighting an emerging potential conflict of interests between Labour supporters and those in support of the NHS. This was clearly a concern for much of the audience, who wondered whether it is more difficult to campaign against changes when it is Labour making those (neoliberal) alterations to the Service. The wider question for much of the group here is whether there has indeed been a move from the NHS’s socialist origins to a neoliberal model?

Given the context of DevoManc, the tensions between the local and the national would appear to be the over-riding theme of the discussion. Reconciling local motivations with national rallying cries is undoubtedly a thorny issue, but something that was called for by most. An example of these difficulties was given in the case of hospitals having their own ‘little ecosystems’, and indeed local hospitals and GPs were said to be integral in building identification with the NHS, which, some in the audience argued, appears to be an almost irrational attachment. At the same time, however, audience members from as far afield as the United States and Germany called for the need to explore the NHS in relation to other international health service provisions, while highlight a praise for the NHS that does not necessarily translate across to other countries. Finally the NHS was proposed to be the last institution embedded in socialist ideology, that (and perhaps somewhat paradoxically) gains support irrespective of politics.

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