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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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