The value of the NHS and the BBC is immeasurable

Attempts to denigrate these public institutions must be resisted

It has never been easy to justify making people pay for something they don't use. That is often how disgruntled Britons now see the NHS and BBC, despite the fact that often those who complain about their high taxes or the licence fee conveniently forget their recent trip to their GP, the maternity ward or the hours they spend enjoying commercial-free TV and radio. But the greatest value of these last major publicly owned institutions is not even quantifiable and it is the consistent failure to make this most difficult of cases for the defence that leaves them so vulnerable.

There is a lot to moan about at the moment. We can gripe about crime and bad schools or the Olympics bringing London to standstill or corrupt and elitist politicians – a dog even won Britain's Got Talent. But there are still a few things that make me relatively pleased to live here. Two things, in fact. The poor raggedy old NHS and the bloated, sometimes crappy but often wonderful BBC. The reasons for lumping these two behemoths together is simple: they both contribute to something well beyond their material value and they are both under dire threat.

Sometimes it seems as if the forces of free-market conservatism are out to get the NHS and BBC precisely because their true worth cannot be expressed on a balance sheet. They are the unfinished business of Thatcherite reform. It's as if it is not just that the government wants to dismantle the NHS for the benefit of profiteering healthcare firms and the BBC for their media-mogul friends, but that it simply can't stand the idea of people contributing to a communal pot for the benefit of everyone. It must really get up the noses of Boris Johnson, who called for a Tory director general this week, and Andrew Lansley, who has fewer friends in public health than the MRSA superbug, to see people “wasting” their money on obscure radio stations and someone else's heart op.

What the NHS and BBC embody and promote is that most slippery and seemingly useless political trope - the public good. This makes it even easier for their opponents. That the mayor of London, not exactly unencumbered by friends in the media, thinks he has the right to meddle in the affairs of the BBC shows the danger it is in. That, after labelling nurses and doctors as communists, the health secretary can this week effectively accuse the Royal College of Nursing of lying over job cuts again demonstrates the way opposition to NHS privitisation is portrayed as wrong economically and ideologically. So in both cases, the fight to save the head and heart of the nation should not only employ facts and figures, but the abstract. Sharing, redistribution, pluralism, protecting the less able and serving the less resourced - these are not worthless because they cannot be rendered statistically. The issue goes far beyond ratings for Eastenders and Radio 3 or cancer recovery rates and waiting times for hip replacements.

It is logical for me to pay for a local radio station that I don't listen to because it serves a community in a way a commercial one never could - or a national network I don't like because it enriches our culture in a way a profit-seeking company would never have the freedom to. I don't need to benefit directly or even “see” the benefit in others, because I am already benefiting by living in a society where such things exist. In the health service the advantages are even more blatant. By contributing to the cost of healthcare for the poorest in society, the wealthiest are helping to reduce suffering in others and by extension for everyone. The social benefits of better universal health, more workers and less crime for example, are obvious, but an explanation involves the kind of conceptual thinking politicians do not trust themselves to present to the public.

The enormous cost of the NHS and the BBC and the way the funds are collected from the public are being used as a hammer to provoke the basest reflexes of self-interest and insularity, Preying on the short-termism and anxiety of recession, the enemies of public ownership are seeking to create an environment in which such ideals are seen as redundant and archaic. It doesn't help that the BBC is guilty of grandiloquent and budget busting projects, yet turns to cutting local and specialist radio – perhaps the greatest expression of its public service – to save money. Despite the faults and weaknesses of both institutions, the forces against them should be resisted. The NHS and BBC, flawed as they are, are not merely worth protecting, they are just about the only two things left that preserve any sense of national community and cohesion.

The mere act of public funding has value. It is not selfless charity or waste; providing our hard-earned wages for something not solely for our own good contributes to our own good because the world we live is a kinder, better, less dumb, less rapacious place for it. In other words, if you think Britain is a divided, violent, parochial and unenlightened country to live in now, without the NHS and the BBC it would be immeasurably worse. There's the rub: the NHS and the BBC make Britain a better place to live - immeasurably.

George Chesterton blogs on politics and culture for the Huffington Post UK

BBC headquarters at Media City UK Photograph: Getty Images

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.