U.S. Politics and the Economy

Attacks on the National Health Service

UK workers can defeat Thatcher’s successors

By Graham Durham

The death of Mrs. Thatcher, celebrated with street parties in Glasgow, Liverpool, London and northern Ireland, reminds workers in Britain that, despite her success in brutally defeating the National Union of Mineworkers’ historic strike of 1984/85 and in fighting the colonial war in the Falkland Islands, she never dared to attack the National Health Service, probably the most popular socialized healthcare system in the world.

However the coalition government of Thatcher’s Tory successor, David Cameron, and his coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats, have launched a two-pronged attack aimed at dismantling the NHS and succeeding where Thatcher did not dare to try. The first assault is an attempt to close and/or rationalize several major hospitals to achieve cuts demanded by the austerity program seeking to blame workers for the financial crisis.

In northern England the attempt to close the specialist children’s heart unit in Leeds ended in farce. Initially the move was halted by a legal action by outraged parents but, having lost the case, the government got the NHS Director to close the unit a day later claiming initial medical data showed clinical practice was less successful at Leeds. Within a week government was forced by campaigners to change course again, and the Leeds unit re-opened on April 7.

In this case and others the Tory government has tried to hide the financial reasons for these closures behind a screen of alleged best clinical practice and trying to use some Tory supporting doctors to justify hospital closures. Everywhere community campaigns have been established to defend local hospitals and prevent patients and their friends and relatives facing long journeys to so-called centers of excellence. A 25,000-strong march in south London to defend the local Lewisham hospital has been the largest (see www.SaveLewishamHospital) and such was the strength of feeling that the local soccer club, Millwall FC, moved a game date to allow supporters to attend the march. This campaign has been matched across London and elsewhere by other hospital campaigns. In several cases plans for closures have been halted or are under review.

The second attack comes through the attempt by the Tory government to force privatization on the NHS commissioning groups of local community doctors (known as GPs—General Practitioners.) Using legislation, the government is seeking to impose a requirement that all commissioning GPs must ensure NHS services are offered to competitive tender, thus allowing private health providers to “loss lead” by cherry-picking profitable NHS services leaving the publicly funded NHS to fund the most expensive treatments. Here NHS campaigners are being faced with some Tory GPs who are seeking to develop private provider companies to maximize their earnings. The existence of a private cohort of doctors seeking to exploit the health market goes back to the founding of the NHS in 1949 when doctors refused, until bribed, to join the service.

With popular opinion on our side and many doctors horrified at their colleagues’ greed, NHS workers and patients must unite local campaigns against privatization and austerity-led closures. The fight to defend the NHS is occurring in every community and the May 18 Save our NHS demonstration in London will symbolize the determination to defeat the Tory attack again.

—April 9, 2013