As the veteran columnist bids farewell to HSJ, we take a look back at some of the momentous events he witnessed as an insider
HSJ and Michael White first got together 40 years ago when Peter Cole, Mr White’s Guardian colleague in the Commons press gallery, left to join the Evening Standard.
He bequeathed the paper’s parliamentary sketch and his £10-a-week freelance column in what was still called the Health and Social Services Journal.
Mr White recalls: “At that point In May 1977 David Ennals had been in charge [as health secretary] for a year. Re-reading the history books and memoirs it is useful to remember what an ungovernable nightmare the 1970s were. In 1974 [then health secretray Barbara] Castle had reluctantly accepted Sir Keith Joseph’s three-tier restructuring of the NHS, the first of many. But she faced militant junior doctors, consultants working to rule (deeply shocking to many) in a gentlemen v players, London v the rest medical world which is still visible.
“Remember too that MPs work harder now. There was no health select committee in 1977, only a handful of women MPs and no minorities. I really do think we are better, if more boringly, governed now.”
A very brief history of (HSJ and Michael White’s) time
Sadly HSJ’s digital archives only stretch back as far as 1998. But the revolutions and ructions of the Blair years gave Mr White much to sink his teeth into. Many early column inches were devoted to New Labour’s first health secretary, Frank Dobson. The start of 1999 saw “Dobbo” taking a refreshingly honest line when asked about the importation of Filipina nurses to the UK.
Such honesty did not do much to help Mr Dobson, who was replaced in October by Alan Milburn, a move our Westminster scribe admitted he hadn’t seen coming.
There was no need to be too apologetic – his predictions were right more often than wrong, and one HSJ staffer fondly recalls placing a winning bet on outsider David Cameron winning the Tory party leadership.
A seismic New Labour moment came in the 2002 budget, when chancellor Gordon Brown announced that spending on the NHS in England would top £100bn five years hence. Our columnist had been feeling sorry for Milburn but that ended as news of the government’s largesse to the NHS became clear.
Milburn proved a forceful figure and, after a critical Audit Commission report, White noted just how resilient he could be.
‘Lansley promptly gave an interview to the Daily Mail, always a prudent defensive move (like feeding steak to an Alsatian)’
The New Labour dream came crashing down in 2010, of course, with the genesis of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Mr White penned his first thoughts on the new order here.
Many of Michael White’s columns expressed an anger at injustice, corruption or lessons not being learned. Following Robert Francis’s final report on the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust scandal he despaired at “local managers and apparatchiks striving to meet targets which the centre demanded, overriding merely human considerations in the process”.
There were warnings about the doctors’ dispute, anger surrounding the 2015 general election (although some fun to be had in his predictions here) and some choice words for Boris, while there was a more complimentary stance (sort of) upon Simon Stevens’ appointment to lead NHS England.
As 2016 delieverd shock after shock, Mr White warned the NHS the Donald Trump’s election had significant implications for the NHS.
40 years of wit and wisdom: Michael White retires from HSJ
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