Britons Blind About Their Healthcare – Part I


There’s an old saying that “people don’t know what’s good for them.” Great Britain seems to be the perfect example.

Dan Hannan, British politician and former member of the European Parliament, says the British people have lost all perspective when it comes to judging their healthcare system. Writing in The Washington Examiner, Hannan notes their reactions to the recent celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the formation of The National Health Service (NHS) – the British socialized medicine system.

Thirty years ago, Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, described the NHS as “the closest thing the English people have to a religion.” Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister, called the NHS the “single idea” that defined Britain’s national character. What does that say about the British people?

The BBC dedicated a full week of programming to the anniversary. The government announced a whopping $25 Billion increase in the NHS budget as a “birthday present”, but that didn’t stop tens of thousands of people marching through London to demand even more money. Members of the Royal Family were seen at commemorative events. Even the Church of England organized national services of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey and York Minster.

You might think the Brits had something here to be proud of – some achievement of great success that the world should emulate. You would be wrong.

Hannan calls the NHS “a fairly unimpressive system, when compared to other developed nations. Although British people like to tell each other that the NHS is the ‘envy of the world’ (a phrase that dates from when the NHS was being designed, and was aspirational rather than descriptive), they rarely pause to ask why no other country has copied it.”

As in many things, emotions can often get in the way of facts. Hannan admits this saying, “The mundane truth is that Britain has worse outcomes than most wealthy states, some distance behind Switzerland, the Netherlands or Germany, though comfortably ahead of, say, Albania. Most international leagues tend to place the UK roughly level with, or a whisker behind Slovenia and Spain. About the best that can be said for the NHS is that it is relatively cheap, largely because it is able to exploit its position as a monopoly employer. One of the oddities of British politics is that the fiercest resistance to market-oriented reform often comes from the poorly paid nurses and hospital porters who would be its chief beneficiaries.”

The Founding of the NHS

Some background on the founding of the NHS is important, if only because of the similarities to our recent experience with the implementation of ObamaCare. The NHS was founded in 1948 by Aneurin Bevan who declared “everyone should be treated alike in the matter of medical care.”

The Beveridge Report, the blueprint for the NHS, promised “a health service providing full preventive and curative treatment of every kind for every citizen without exceptions.” The goal of the NHS founders was to eliminate inequalities in healthcare based on age, sex, occupation, geographical location and – most importantly – income and social class. As Bevan stated it, “the essence of a satisfactory health service is that rich and poor are treated alike, that poverty is not a disability and wealth is not advantaged.”

The British government spends roughly one-sixth of its budget on healthcare and nearly triple its defense spending. The NHS is a vast bureaucracy employing over 1.7 million workers, the fifth largest employer on the planet, according to the BBC.

How well has this worked out for the British people?

The comments of Hannan above should give you a hint that it hasn’t exactly lived up to its expectations (much like ObamaCare). I’ll give you more facts on healthcare outcomes from the NHS next post.

But the lesson most to be learned here concerns the attitudes that people develop when anything “free” is threatened by criticism. Hannan speaks from experience:

“Anyone who suggests that the system might be improved, as I can attest, is subjected to that peculiar madness that only British tabloids can generate. We are “mocking the sick,” we are “putting profits before people,” we are “insulting our hard-working doctors and nurses.” For some reason, the epithet “hard-working” is always applied to NHS workers, never to the handful of private sector and agency worker. Being employed by the government is deemed to bestow virtue.”

Hannan warns America that the advocates of socialized medicine are blind to the realities of their system. “In their eyes, poor survival rates are almost incidental. Their chief concern is to have a popular institution run on the socialist principle of contribution according to ability, distribution according to need.” (emphasis mine)

As those Americans on the left push harder for socialized medicine in this country (Medicare For All) we must be mindful of the British experience – and learn from their mistakes!


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