Americans! Don’t Copy the British Healthcare System

April 10, 2009
It's difficult not to warm to John Prescott. As part of a Labour Government that lived from headline to headline, he added a dash of authenticity. He may have been oafish, but he was reassuringly human.
Prescott is trying to fabricate a row out of myinterview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, in which I warned Americans against adopting a socialist healthcare system along British lines. You can watch the old bruiserhere. (If you're an American who likes to imagine that the British are eloquent, please ignore that last hyperlink.)
I wonder whether anyone still falls for this sort of stuff. For a long time, Labour politicians had two slogans which they would trot out whenever healthcare came up: "Envy Of The World" and "Free At The Point Of Use". These phrases were not intended to be arguments. Rather, they were ways of playing your trump, of closing down the debate.
Prezza uses both (or, rather, a mangled version of each). The NHS, he says, is Britain's "greatest creation". Really? Greater than parliamentary democracy? Greater than penicillin? Greater than the discovery of DNA, or the abolition of slavery, or the common law? John, the NHS produces some of theworst health outcomes in the industrialised world. Britain is the Western state where you'd least want to have cancer or a stroke or heart disease. Ours is now a country where thousands of people arekilled in hospitals for reasons unrelated to their original condition. If this is our "greatest creation", Heaven help us.
As for the second slogan, which Prezza renders as "need and not ability to pay", there is no health system in Europe or North America that leaves the indigent untended. What is at issue is not whether we force poor people to pay, but whether we prevent wealthier people from doing so. The British system treats everyone equally, it's true: we queue equally, we wait weeks for operations equally, we are expected to be equally grateful for any attention we get.
Outside Westminster, the old incantations are losing their magic. Envy Of The World is no longer a charm to ward off criticism. People can see for themselves that Britain has become a place where foreigners fear to fall ill. Yes, all three parties are committed to the NHS: I am a humble backbencher, and speak only for myself. But I wonder whether, as on tax and borrowing, public opinion hasn't overtaken the Westminster consensus.
Let me put it like this. Imagine that, in 1945, we had created a National Food Service. Suppose that, in the name of "fairness" and "need and not ability to pay", sustenance had been rationed by the state. Conjecture that every citizen had been allocated one butcher, one baker, one café and so on. We all know where that would have led: to bureaucracy, to duplication, to surpluses in one field and scarcity in another, to racketeering, to hunger. No one, not even Prescott, is suggesting that we socialise food distribution - even though food is at least as basic human need as healthcare.
As those Americans of whom you seem so contemptuous might put it, John, go figure.

Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He has written eight books on European policy, is author ofThe Plan: Twelve months to renew Britain, and he blogs here.



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