Save Our NHS: Act 2 begins…
The growing sense that the NHS is on the brink of meltdown might point to the failure of the Save The NHS campaigns of the last few years, but the recent protests by Junior Doctors are just one sign that something new might be stirring.
Musical theatre often seems to follow a pattern like this*: The first act opens with an announcement, and we meet various characters, each making a specific case for themselves, showing their motivations and personality. A web of relationships will be shown as they come into contact with one another, laying out hierarchies and oppositions. Some will be shown as strong and capable, others wilting and hapless. Often an air of nostalgia prevails. Just as the act draws to a close, something will be revealed or announced that will tip everything out of its hitherto gentle state. The great dilemma of the second act is set up, and then the audience shuffle off to queue for the loos, a glass of wine, ice cream or a smoke.
The current state of the NHS defence movement is much like this. The movement that sprang up in opposition to the publishing of the Health and Social Care Act during the ConDem government was put into some disarray by the passing of the Act. A shimmer of hope remained in the possibility of a 2015 Labour victory, that would, in turn, allow Andy Burnham and Ed Milliband to save the day. Things settled into a status quo for a couple of years, up to the General Election. The curtain fell on Act 1 with the horrified gasps of realisation: the Tories had stolen victory instead.
Too many people, whether worn down activists or cynical bystanders to the great slaughter of our healthcare system, will say that its all over. I don’t. That’s not just because I’m hopelessly optimistic. We’ve seen movements roll back the tide, time and again. The situation in the NHS is approaching a tipping point, one that could tip over public opinion with it.
Like our overly predictable theatre piece, Act 2 will involve a series of revelations, and sudden shifts in alliances. Some ‘great people’ will end up sidelined in history (Andy Burnham) and some will look like fools (anyone still talking about Burnham’s NHS Reinstatement Bill). A new character might be introduced – the Junior Doctors, perhaps? New horrors may occur – someone found dead on a hospital trolley, maybe? What is certain is that the same world as in Act 1 is now a very different place to be.
The campaign against the Health and Social Care Bill (now Act) was a campaign fought on visions of a possible future. It relied on very academic arguments around the technical language in the bill. With a very few exceptions, no one doubts the very real commitment to the cause, but the campaign struggled to connect with the wider public. Too many of the national ‘leading characters’ in the pre-2015 stages were obsessed with details that meant nothing, whilst many in the public simply thought that no government would ever do what we said they would do. To get angry, you needed to know much more than people had time for.
In the last few weeks, not only have the Junior Doctors spoken up, but ordinary users of the NHS have started to notice that something is amiss. We’re not talking about people in Mental Health services, who have known for years that those areas are inadequately funded. We’re talking about heart wards, dialysis units, and more. Its going to hit home quite soon that the NHS is no longer functioning – a horrible prospect for those hit directly, but a huge wake-up call to all of us.
This renewed campaign will be fought from the heart much more than the head. Many of those involved in the first phase will be at a loss as to what to do in the second, and its possible some of the multiple campaigns that came about will be reduced in significance – much as the Junior Doctors have overtaken their official representative bodies in getting out into the streets. The Conservatives will need to be confronted with the full horror of their efforts, much as with the woman on Question Time who burst into tears describing life when tax credits dry up.
Whatever other factors come into play, one factor is certain: Winter is coming, and with it the prospect of an NHS in total collapse. Who knows how the public will respond?
* By ‘Musical Theatre’, its perhaps more accurate to say ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’, but they’re not the only writers to resort to this general plan.