The parallels between the politics of the invasion of Iraq and the dismantling of the NHS could not be more blatant writes Iain Wilson
It was over a decade ago that I heckled Tony Blair about the Iraq War. The then Prime Minister had organised a PR event to launch the White Paper introducing Top-Up fees- anything was preferable to talking about Iraq, even top-up fees. And this week, on the third occasion when NHS workers went out on strike, Theresa May published a counter-terrorism bill that the UK's reviewer of terror laws, David Anderson QC, described as 'an announcement waiting for a policy'. The parallels between the politics of the invasion of Iraq and the dismantling of the NHS could not be more blatant.
In the years leading up to the Iraq War, the soon-to-be victims were tenderised by increasingly stringent sanctions. Ideologues, such as Paul Wolfowitz, pushed Leo Strauss' 'noble lie'- the tenuous moral justification for lying to the public in order to do whatever you want with state power. Those without an ideological grudge against the Middle East had their own interests in the destruction of Iraq- the corporate takeover of Iraq's infrastructure and oil fields.
There were humanitarian tragedies under the Saddam Hussein regime, and we were reminded of them constantly. We were told that the status quo in Iraq couldn't continue and 'something needs to be done'. Then, after the lies, it went quiet. The web of spin became a wall of silence. Our defence minister, Geoff Hoon, and Tony Blair disappeared, only surfacing in stage-managed contexts where they could start bullshitting from a premise of their 'noble lies' and dodgy dossiers. It was in that context that I became famous – I tried to have a discussion that everyone on the streets was having, but with the one man who refused to discuss it.
The NHS 'hawks'
Fast-forward ten years, and during the first reading of the (somewhat flawed) Labour Party Bill to amend the NHS, the architects of privatisation were nowhere to be seen. Only 18 Tories turned up. Rather than be seen debating the consequences of the largest reorganisation of the NHS in history (the consequences are mass-privatisation, by the way), the Coalition government let a bill through its first reading that could yet undermine their NHS changes.
Jeremy Hunt is never heard, only read about, seen through press releases and smug photographs. His recent confession to taking his children, unnecessarily, to A&E, perfectly deflected from the fact the NHS has mysteriously refused to publish their 'Winter pressures situation reports'. The public now has no real access to the performance of our hospitals this winter, instead, we are spoon-fed some 'All in it together' scare stories from the Health Secretary.
Like Iraq's politically convenient atrocities, Mid-Staffordshire was a heart-breaking humanitarian disaster, but one that the Francis Report blamed on corporate culture in the NHS – not on nurses. To insist on more caring nurses while simultaneously holding their wages down, increasing their pension contributions, cutting their jobs and handing their contracts over to Conservative Party donors is ludicrous. But he's been getting away with it in the press, who, like they did with Iraq a decade ago, publish inane, ill-informed press releases as if they were facts. £2billion ‘extra’ money for the NHS announced at the weekend in the context of the Nicholson Challenge (an expected £20 billion in ‘efficiency savings’ by 2015), is actually an £18billion cut. And come to mention it, what about the £2.2 billion the Treasury took back from NHS Trust accounts last year, which it deemed to be ‘underspend’?
We are drip-fed lies about a failing NHS, despite evidence that it is among the most successful healthcare systems on the planet. People have sleepwalked into believing that we cannot adequately fund the NHS, whereas the whole point of the NHS is that a nationally funded system of healthcare is the only one we can afford which meets the nation's needs- everybody, from rich to poor. The government is meant to serve that purpose and release adequate funds to the NHS in order to achieve this. Yet the opposite has been repeatedly put forwards by politicians over the last 30 years – that the NHS has no money, and in order to keep the NHS alive, we must cut back on care. In order to be looked after, free at the point of delivery, we’re going to have to start paying for large parts of our care. It all resonates with the 'bombing for peace' arguments put forwards by those who eyed up Iraq's resources ten years ago.
And although a sanctions regime has a different stated objective from austerity, the starving of resources that the NHS faces mean it is being tenderised for corporate invasion. Hospitals are being asked to be 25% 'more efficient' over 5 years. Hospitals that aren't meeting financial targets can be taken over by 'Special Administrators' then closed down or farmed out to the private sector – without full consultation and regardless of public opinion. The new CCG regime compels every aspect of the NHS to be put out to tender, and has put private companies on course to net £9billion of taxpayer-funded contracts. Wages are being kept down, which makes the contracts more amenable to private takeover.
Like the 'hawks' before, those orchestrating the change are motivated by delusions or personal interest. When it comes to ideology, nobody is so sworn against the principles of the NHS as Jeremy Hunt, a man who in 2008 signed up to a plan to replace the funding of the NHS (a system of national insurance) with a system of 'personal savings accounts'. This is at a time when savings are a fantasy for people, debt the reality. Deluded. We would have to choose between spending our earnings on housing or on a health savings account. And when it comes to conflicts of interest, 71 Coalition government MPs were noted to have received money from private health companies, or their investors. David Cameron has handed out peerages to private caregivers that give £200,000 to the Conservative Party. The former chair of the Health Select Committee, Stephen Dorrell MP has taken a lucrative job at KPMG, who are about to bid for a £1billion NHS contract. And before the Coalition held the keys to power, Alan Milburn expanded the role of the market as a Labour Health Minister, and now works for Price Waterhouse Cooper, a company who benefited greatly from these marketisations.
The pattern of punishing innocent people through sanctions or austerity, in order to ready them for decimation, all the while, telling lies and usurping state power for private or ideological interest probably takes place in more than these two circumstances. But what stands out is that for the Iraq War and the NHS, the politicians doing so have been acutely conscious of the public antipathy, yet done it anyway. It suggests that the existence of universal healthcare is just as repulsive to neoliberals as autonomous, oil-rich states. The relentless quest to extend corporate power into every corner of the planet necessitates lies about the areas where it has been excluded. Tony Blair and David Cameron have each staked their legacy on an ideological step beyond their mandates. A mission that wasn't required, but engineered. They lit the fuses long before the bombs went off, then climbed into bunkers, away from the public, and waited for the smoke to blow-over. However, as we know about Iraq, some smoke doesn't clear, some decisions become protracted disasters, and we are beginning to see that in our hospitals as Winter sets in.
After drawing so many comparisons, the obvious, final comparison is that we failed to stop the war on Iraq. However, there are key differences this time - the internet and social media is more advanced and more savvy. Initiatives like peoplesvotefornhs make it easier than ever to read true accounts, find out what your MP believes, how to contact them and who you could vote for. The 999 call for the NHS map allows the local NHS campaigns to work together, sharing knowledge and resources. NHS Support Federation is chronicling the damage. Along with the anti-austerity campaigns such as The People’s Assembly, the chances to organise and reclaim the NHS are growing.
Also, the majority for this government is smaller, and the political landscape different. In 2003 the anti-war movement won in Germany, Spain, France and the rest of Europe. Their leaders backed away from war or were voted out, because their majorities were smaller and they have more democratic electoral systems.
This time, in the UK, the margins of electoral victory are smaller, and voting the right way could save further lives from being lost. The Conservative Party will have to electioneer among their victims. Candidates will have to walk the streets of Britain, places like Lewisham and Stafford where tens of thousands turned out to save their hospital. The Labour Party will need to commit to repealing the Health and Social Care Act, increasing funding, and tackling PFI and unwanted markets. They will all try to avoid parties like the National Health Action Party, who intend to target high-profile seats and marginals. And if they manage to avoid them, they will have to dodge the hecklers. The last thing people selling the NHS want to do is face the truth, and the more often they are unable to escape it, the more chance we have of saving the NHS. Just look at Andrew Lansley's famous encounter with June Hautot. Social media means we can appear quickly too - so that every candidate who voted for the Health and Social Care Act should face this.
Iain Wilson is a nurse at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woolwich. He is on the steering committee of the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign and is a member of Unison.