I’m not sure which was the more unexpected feature of the Olympic opening ceremony - the Queen “parachuting in” with James Bond or a slice of priceless, prime-time global TV devoted to praise of our NHS and the young patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Can there ever have been a better public service ad?
At the risk of spoiling suspense I must reveal right away that Andrew Lansley does not seem to have been one of those ministers who saw an early video of rehearsals for Danny Boyle’s spectacular and protested that it was what backbench Tory tweeter Aidan Burley unwisely called “leftie multicultural crap” without enough Winston Churchill.
“I think Andrew was pleased that the NHS got such recognition,” one official tells me. That strikes me as a sensible response. Of course, the dominant strand of Boyle’s visually stunning narrative was what we can more politely call progressive - suffragettes, protesters, hospital nurses instead of Grenadier Guardsmen, gay kisses and the rest. No wonder plenty of Labour and Lib Dem partisans were thrilled while rightwingers fumed about sentimentalising our “awful nationalised healthcare system”.
But there was plenty in Boyle’s confection for patriotic Tories and the show was both inclusive and generous in tone. In a month when an HSJ editorial has fretted about the still “snowy peaks” of NHS leadership and the disproportionate impact of cuts on ethnic minority staff, people-centred inclusivity matters, even the symbolic kind.
So sensible Conservatives - Lansley, Cameron and Mayor Boris included - simply rolled with the punch. After all, they had “their” Diamond Jubilee and the NHS probably commands at least as much affection as the royal family, less glamorous but much more useful on a daily basis. As one Tory ex-health minister told me: “It was relatively safe territory that went a bit beyond schmaltz, proof from Mount Olympus that Nigel Lawson was right.”
Nigel Lawson? Yes, he was Margaret Thatcher’s second chancellor (1983-89), the man who later said in Treasury-driven frustration that the NHS is “the closest thing the English have to a religion”. Make that “British” and plenty have made similar remarks.
In 1976 Barbara Castle called it “the nearest thing to the embodiment of the Good Samaritan that we have”, while only last year the right-ish Tory MP David Ruffley conceded: “We are all socialists in a funny way when it comes to the NHS.”
A serious political question remains: does global sanctification by Boyle’s crew (and hordes of wire-guided Mary Poppinses) help the debate now raging about how best to increase the NHS’s effectiveness by strengthening its self-belief and courage to adapt to changing times? Or does it entrench a sentimental (“envy of the world”) nostalgia at a time when - so Ara Darzi told HSJ last week - the likes of Mexico and Brazil have much to teach us? I can’t pretend to know.
Unlike pro-market lobbies such as Reform I still believe the altruistic and collectivist principles underpinning the NHS are superior to market-driven healthcare systems. But that does not answer the question once posed by Peter Parker, a Labour-voting British Rail chairman: is it a transport system or a heritage site?
The debate on hospital reorganisation, highly emotional and still politicised despite the Lansley reforms, poises a similar question. Terence Stephenson, new chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, has just called for mass ward and departmental closures, centralisation in the name of efficiency and effectiveness.
Yet William Hague, the kind of Thatcherite Tory who probably choked on Boyle’s Olympic show, joined a constituency protest that put NHS heart over head.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian