Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Open Wide for Public Service Destruction

This column of mine appears in the Morning Star.

Neil Clark: Open wide for Public Service Destruction
Examining the coalition government's plans to carry on the backdoor firesale of our assets

July 6 2010 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of the great Welsh socialist Aneurin Bevan, the father of the NHS.

Just six days after the anniversary, Tory Health Minister Andrew Lansley (above) announced radical government plans which, if carried out, will mark the end of Bevan's great, humane creation in all but name.

The extent of the reforms, which allow all hospitals to leave public ownership as well as scrapping primary health care trusts and the revenue cap on private patients, shocked many political observers. They were a clear breach of Lansley's own pre-election pledge not to introduce any major structural reform of the NHS.

But those who appreciate that the "progressive" Con-Dem government bats for capital and not for the ordinary British people would not have been surprised in the least.

In January, the Daily Telegraph revealed that Lansley, then shadow health secretary, had received £21,000 for the running of his private office from private equity tycoon John Nash, chairman of Care UK and several other health companies.

In company documents Nash, who also gave the Tories £60,000 in September 2009, enthused over "recent policy statements by the opposition Conservative Party in the UK which have substantially strengthened their commitment to more open market reform to allow new providers of NHS services and for greater freedom for patients to choose their GP and hospital provider."

For privateers like Nash the trouble with Labour was that after the fall of Tony Blair the "open market reform" of the NHS was proceeding too slowly.

Now Nash and his fellow private healthcare providers have got the fast-track "reforming" government they want. But for pro-privatisation politicians like Lansley there remains a problem.

Despite the relentless propaganda of neoliberal think tanks and NHS-bashing columns by right-wing writers such as Janet Daley, Simon Heffer and Richard Littlejohn, the NHS remains an enormously popular institution. It's loved not just by socialists and social democrats, but by Conservative voters too.

If the government announced that the NHS was to be privatised en bloc there'd be a huge public outcry. So Lansley needs to present his reforms as "liberating" the NHS and achieve privatisation through the backdoor.

The government is clearly using the destruction of NHS dentistry as its model.

From the 1990s onwards, private dental chains started buying up NHS practices and converting them to private-only practices. The value of private dentistry grew from £289m in 1994-95 to just under £2bn in 2001-2. And costs for treatments soared - on average private treatments are four times more expensive than those offered on the NHS.

Millions of Britons, unable to pay the higher costs and without an NHS practice in their area, simply stopped going to the dentist altogether. As a result tooth decay, mouth cancer and other oral diseases rose sharply.

As I highlighted in the New Statesman in 2003, "A predominantly private dental service inevitably means a two-tier service: good mouths and gleaming smiles for the rich; disease, tooth decay and emergency extraction dentistry for the rest."

What we are heading for if the coalition gets its way is a predominantly private health service. As in dentistry, that will mean a two-tier service - good health and prompt treatment for the rich, longer waiting times and a second-class service for the rest.

How Nye Bevan must be turning in his grave.

Transport failure

Back in the 1980s, a group of fanatical neoliberals calling themselves the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) called for the deregulation of Britain's bus industry and the privatisation of the state-owned National Bus Company. The government listened to their advice and today Britain has the most expensive buses in Europe.

A decade later the same group of fanatical neoliberals called for the privatisation of British Rail. Despite the warnings of wise old anti-Thatcherite Tories such as Sir Ian Gilmour, who thought privatising the rail network was "crazy," John Major's government listened to their advice and sold off the railways.

The result? Britain has the most fragmented and expensive railway system in Europe, if not the entire world.

You'd have thought that given their disastrous track record - no pun intended - the ASI would by now have done the honourable thing and disappeared from public life.

Not a bit of it. The group is still active today - and still coming out with "free market" claptrap. Their latest proposal is for the TV licence fee to be abolished and the BBC to instead become a voluntary subscription service. Such a move would, the institute argues, encourage the BBC "to compete with the big US studios."

Well I don't know about you, dear reader, but I don't want the BBC to "compete with the big US studios." I only want the state-owned broadcaster to continue to produce the good-quality programmes it has done for years.

Implementation of the earlier "crazy" ASI ideas led to the destruction of the National Bus Company and British Rail. Let's make sure it doesn't claim a third scalp with the BBC.

Energy rip-off

"Why does NO-ONE step in and do something about these big companies robbing customers. I struggle with my gas especially when it's cold and it really at times has been a choice between being warm and buying food/paying other bills etc ... it's criminal and something really should be done about it," wrote a commenter on the Daily Mirror's website.

They were responding to news that British Gas had almost doubled its profits to £583m in the first six months of 2010.

Public anger with the corporate profiteers is certainly growing. It will continue to grow as living standards for the majority fall, due to the government's swingeing cuts in public spending. More and more people are waking up to the fact that the battle is not between the middle and working classes, but between a small gang of corporate profiteers and everyone else.

This gang of profiteers is screwing all of us and it will continue to do so until we make a clean break with neoliberalism and bring back into public ownership all the assets which have been privatised in the last 30 years.


Mr. Piccolo said...

Great article, Mr. Clark. I especially like the focus on the purchasing of politicians. More and more people are seeing through the facade of what we call "democracy." How much of a democracy can it really be when the politicians are effectively bought by a system of legal bribery?

Politicians ignore the people on issues from war to privatization, but as soon as the rich get upset, they are ready to come to their aid on bended knee.

Douglas said...

I haven't been following this story of the destruction of NHS as closely as I should have, but I find it very interesting, because the US seems to be about 50+ years behind the UK in creating an NHS.

Many other conservatives in the US are also looking at this story with great interest, and presenting it as evidence that the US shouldn't go in the same direction as the UK did 50 years ago.

What is the main argument presented in the UK for getting rid of NHS? Is it strictly fiscal? Is it related to cost-effectiveness? Quality of care? Medical innovation? I'm really not trying to be a smartaleck, I believe there are multiple arguments.

On a related note, this week, voters in the state of Missouri overwhelmingly rejected a federal mandate to purchase health insurance. It is unclear at this point whether the Constitutionality of various aspects of Obamacare will be upheld, but it is clear that large chunks of the American people think that something like the NHS would be an unjustified government intrusion into their lives.

DBC Reed said...

Goog stuff.I just wish we had the enemy clearly in our sights.Talking about "neoliberals"is confusing to most people as "liberal"has positive overtones (of freedom).Why don't we call them ,flat out, "capitalists"and be done with it?

Neil Clark said...

Mr Piccolo: Many thanks.
On British democracy:

"The people of Britain are what is called a democracy," said Moung Ka.
"A democracy?" questioned Moung Thwa. "What is that?"
"A democracy," broke in Moung Shoogalay eagerly, "is a community that governs itself according to its own wishes and interests by electing accredited representatives who enact its laws and supervise and control their administration.
"Its aim and object is government of the community in the interests of the community."
"Then," said Moung Thwa, turning to his neighbour, "if the people of Britain are a democracy-"
"I never said they were a democracy," interrupted Moung Ka placidly.
"Surely we both heard you!" exclaimed Moung Thwa.
"Not correctly," said Moung Ka, "I said they are what is called a democracy."

From The Comments Of Moung Ka in The Square Egg by Saki.

Neil Clark said...

Douglas- great to hear from you. The neoliberals will use any bogus argument they can to attack the idea of socialised health care-
They call the NHS 'Stalinist’, they say it’s inefficient, that it costs us too much, that more choice of ‘health care providers‘ would be good for us.
In fact the NHS does a great job and we all pay a lot less for our health care under a National Insurance scheme than if we had to take out private medical insurance. A similar campaign was waged against British Rail, prior to its privatisation- we were told that privatising the railways would give us more ‘choice’, and lead to better service and lower prices.
In fact, privatised railway companies receive around four times more taxpayers subsidy than BR did, and we have the highest rail fares in Europe, with commuters who have small fortunes for their tickets herded into carriages like cattle. No sane person could argue that Britain's privatised railways are better than British Rail, yet the very same people who urged the privatisation of the railways are today urging the destruction of the NHS.

DBC- good point. ‘Turbo-capitalists’ might be better- than just ‘capitalist’- these people don’t want old-style Rhineland capitalism, with paternalistic family-owned firms rooted in the community- they want aggressive Anglo-Saxon vulture capitalism.