The National Health Service, and Ken Loach, in the UK and Latin America

Strange to think that 12 months ago I was in San Salvador, having just travelled overland through Nicaragua and Honduras from Costa Rica.  I wouldn’t mind some of that hot weather here now  this winter is interminable, but at least I transplanted my tomato seedlings (good Mesoamerican crop) today enyoying bright sunshine on my vitamin D manufacturing bald head, if not much warmth.
On Thursday night we were at the excellent and very convivial but chilly #small cinema in Moston, North Manchester (in the Miners’ club community centre – no miners now though) for a screening of Ken Loach’s “Spirit of ’45”.  (There’s a connection by the way with Central America, Loach’s film Cara’s Song about the US funded terrorism in  Nicaragua during the 1980s).  Spirit of ’45 is about the Labour government of 1945.  The only one we’ve had with an explicitly socialist programme, which nationalised the strategic sectors, and in that triumph of social soidarity over wealth, established the National Health Service.  The film is a timely reminder of the extreme poverty of the 1930s; it has to be seen to remind us where the Liberal / Tory coalition are trying to return us, and it captures well that socialist spirit that yes we can take circumsstances in hand and meet human need, overturning privilege.  It is very good on the NHS and the lack of even basic care for so many before it came in in 1948.  A wonderful sequence has a GP telling how us about the day the NHS started: he visited a boy with a serious cough.  But he had a brother also coughing.  His mother said, but we can’t afford for you to see him too – and the Dr was able to say ‘from today it is free for everyone’.   Tories and the captured Labour party of Blair have rolled back a lot of this (despite Frank Dobson and Andy Burnham’s good work as ministers), but we can still say that there are elements of socialism in our NHS, where national wealth pays for national health.
But the film to my mind neglects a number of things.   It does make the point that the social ownership established, in  the mines, for example, was bureaucratic with no worker or community control.  But it fails to really explain how common sense of the socialist alternative (from experience of poverty and the experience of de facto socialism, in many spheres, in wartime) was eroded.  Affluence and the decline inncollectivee and class consciousness was one factor.  The Labour Party’s dislike of theory might have been another.  Trade union, sectoral, rather than class consciousness will have been another.  And perhaps most important (touched on but not really explored in the film) were the contradictions of capitalism itself, leading to a decline in British industrial competitiveness and a crisis in the consensus, the post war settlement of mitigated capitalism upheld by Labour and Tories until the 1970s.  So was the scene set for the new right of Thatcher and neoliberalism, and we didn’t know what had hit us.  The same happened with Blair as we grasped for ways to understand it (Fascism but not as we know it was one approximation I tried).
And nor does the film mention at all the shocking foreign policy oft he 1945 Atlee government.
Back to the Latin American theme:  the socialist vision of the NHS lives on in Cuba, and in the expansion of public health care in the ALBA states and beyond.  Fidel took inspiration precisely from the NHS, and Cubans now enjoy similar levels of health to those of us in the rich countries on most measures.

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