A week after the death of Queen Elizabeth in September, India replaced Britain as the world’s fifth-largest economy1.
A few weeks later King Charles acceded to the throne to become head of the Commonwealth while an Asian Hindu MP became Britain’s prime minister.
The first sentence captures the end of a royal era and the statistical reality of the new global economy. The second reveals the normative yet incongruous notion that King Charles heads the Commonwealth in which his country is no longer the powerhouse it once was. But, it also shows how Britain, with all its faults, still maintains an often accidental capacity to shock itself into progress.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader of the opposition, described Rishi Sunak’s election (it was more of a Tory coronation2) as a significant moment that proved that Britain was a place where people of all races and all beliefs could fulfill their dreams. Many didn’t think that they would live to see the day, he said, and described it as part of what made him so proud to be British.
Pride works best when there’s some recognition by those around you that it is deserved. Everybody knows Sunak’s move from 11 to 10 Downing St was forced upon the Tories. Sadly, there are few things left for which Britain can be proud of and a lot fewer for which it can be envied.
The National Health Service used to be one them. Labour’s Health Minister Nye Bevan had described the birth of the NHS in 1948 as “the most civilised step any country has ever taken”. It became in a very practical sense a representation of Britain’s true common wealth. Actual, shared wealth, not a crass rebranding of colonial exploitation, even though many might claim that it was achieved on the back of that colonial hegemony.
While it became inevitable that one day Britain would lose its primacy and clout in the Commonwealth3, it was not inevitable that it would lose the plot on the NHS.
In the 80s when the common wealth of Rail and Water were lost to profit, Margaret Thatcher had said, somewhat disingenuously, that the NHS, “was safe in our hands”. Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown introduced much needed reform with the latter famously saying that “the NHS is the best insurance system for the long term”4.
David Cameron’s happy-go-lucky capitalism further eroded the Bevan project and gradually gave way to kleptocratic alliances between reckless business interests and the new generation of irresponsible, opportunistic Tory politicians.
We have gradually begun to forget that a Britain that would have stayed in the European Union would not have operated the way its leadership now feels allowed to. Its EU membership had obliged it to live up to its status as a robust, mature European state. Despite the periodical shenanigans of its leaders it was anchored in common sense and its partners saw it as the home of political realism. Its civil service taught its European partners efficiency as its political class benefited from Europe’s culture of compromise. And while it often also provoked its partners, in a strange self-regulating way it was tamed by its reputation as the sane country it was perceived to be. Not any more.
As the NHS’ ambulance and paramedic strike takes hold, Health Secretary Steve Barclay – who it should not be forgotten served as Brexit negotiator – yesterday called on the public to use their common sense and to consider that the system will be under very severe pressure5. Of course it will be. Since Brexit the whole country has been under very severe pressure.
The problem is that the Tories are too self-obsessed to grasp it while Labour is too divided to admit it. More disconcertingly Bevan’s party also seems too timid to be able to do anything radical about it.
Photo: Nye Bevan at Park Hospital, Manchester, meeting 13-year-old Sylvia Beckenham, the first NHS patient; The Daily Herald, 6 July 1948.
2. Rishi Sunak became PM with less than 1 percent of the British vote.
3. Need to be fair that the Commonwealth as an institution does good things in research and education bringing people together and supporting communities.