Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday 14 August 2009

And breathe......

This week, I've been both amused and amazed by the way the healthcare reform debate in the US seems to have branched out into absurd stories about the National Health Service.

This may be because the loonies don't need a dictionary to misunderstand the NHS, unlike other European systems that that provide universal care through insurance, at lower cost and higher efficiency and effectiveness.

Or it may suit the more machiavellian among them to face a furious blacklash from this side of the water, if it enables them to dismiss any reform proposals as being like the system defended by people with snooty accents, bad teeth and attitood (though, as it turns out, there are plenty of American expatriates willing to tell the truth).

As I understand it, there's little if anything in any of the proposals before Congress that approach the idea of a single payer, let alone a single delivery system, for healthcare in the US. I doubt if it would be possible in such a large, diverse and individualistic country. We tend to forget that the NHS is very much of its time, founded as it was at the high point of belief in community spirit and collective action through the state to achieve common ends. That, after all, was what was believed to have won the war. But the neocons' target audience wouldn't be aware that all this is not new: Churchill's first speech in the 1945 general election campaign claimed that a Labour government - people he'd worked in coalition with for the previous five years - would need a Gestapo to carry through policies like creating the NHS.

As the dust settles a little, what has really struck me is how so many of the comments from this side of the water see this as more than just a series of mistakes or political exaggerations: people are taking it as an insult both personal and national - our very sense of ourselves has been injured. It's as though the neocons have been taking pot-shots at Lassie and spitting at the Queen. In the long history of reciprocal misunderstanding, this feels like something of a watershed: perhaps de Gaulle had a point.

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