This week’s Commons vote on the Health and Care Bill was accompanied by protest rallies outside Parliament, with all the usual suspects present. Zarah Sultana, the continuity-Corbyn MP for Coventry South, described the Bill as “NHS privatisation by stealth”. Richard Burgon, another staunch Corbynite, dubbed it the “Corporate Takeover Bill”. And John McDonnell – yes, he’s still around – said it was “a huge step in privatising our NHS”.
Doesn’t this all sound familiar? Of course it does, because we’ve heard these sermons of catastrophe on numerous occasions before. Every NHS reform since at least 1980 has been decried by some Left-winger or another as “privatisation by stealth”.
Still, it is curious that the current Health and Care Bill should meet the same fate, given that it mostly consists of reversing reforms from the David Cameron era, which themselves triggered a wave of NHS privatisation panic.
Mr Cameron’s reforms were not “privatisation” (no health reform in British history ever was). But they did strengthen the role of competitive tendering, which had some potential for increasing the involvement of private contractors.
Nearly a decade on, it is fair to say it probably had that effect, even if it was small in magnitude. There was an increase in the number of NHS contracts awarded to private companies, but most of these involved negligible sums of money.
Such minute changes did not prevent the Left from characterising the reforms as a fundamental shift, however. Indeed, this is an apt opportunity to look back on the vastly disproportionate reaction.
In 2010, just a few weeks after the Coalition took office, the New Statesman warned that the new government’s embryonic health plan could be “leading the way to the wholesale privatisation of the NHS”.
As Mr Cameron’s reforms began to take shape, Brendan Barber, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress at the time, claimed that it “opens the door to widespread privatisation”. Karen Jennings, Unison’s then head of health, added: “This titanic health bill threatens to sink our NHS. The only survivors will be the private health companies that are circling like sharks.”
More than 100 GPs wrote an open letter to the leadership of British Medical Association, urging them to take a tougher line in opposition on the grounds that the reforms “will not only destroy the NHS, but also profoundly affect the social fabric of the nation”.
On the day Mr Cameron’s Health and Social Care Act finally took effect, Owen Jones, the Left-wing journalist, declared somberly: “Nothing is more gut-wrenching than watching a close friend dying in front of you. And I mean beyond close: a friend who brought you into the world, helped raise you, and was there whenever you were most desperately in need. So, spare a moment for our National Health Service. Time of death: midnight, 1st April 2013. Cause of death: murder.”
How embarrassing it must be for him now, looking back at such profuse exaggeration. The current privatisation hysteria will age just as badly. In a few years’ time, the NHS will still be there, probably with copious funding, and it will have become clear that the current brouhaha was just a baseless moral panic over nothing.
Unfortunately, none of these people will be called out for their failed prophecies for, by then, there will already be a new NHS privatisation panic in town, and the current one will be long forgotten.
Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA’s Head of Political Economy and author of ‘Wizards of Oz?’