The NHS: even more cherished than the monarchy and the army

New polling by British Future shows that while attitudes to the NHS have fluctuated, commitment to its founding principles has remained remarkably consistent.

January often heralds a couple of weeks of absent mindedly getting the year wrong, but it has been easier than usual to remember that it is not 2012 anymore. 2013 feels like an altogether more ordinary year, after the exuberance of the Olympics, as attention returns to the long slog through the economic crunch.

Yet it turns out that the national events of 2012, gently satirised as the year of the "Jubilympics", do not represent the main sources of national pride in Britain.

The NHS beat both the monarchy and the Olympics to take gold in the patriotism stakes, as Ipsos-Mori's polling for British Future's new State of the Nation 2013 report, published today, shows. The army ranked second, when pollsters asked people which institutions made people proudest to be British, with Team GB taking bronze, nudging the royals off the podium altogether.

The NHS was most popular with Britons from all backgrounds, being top for both white and non-white Britons, and across social classes, though the oldest segment of the population put the monarchy first, and the under-24s the army.

Seventy two per cent of people declared the NHS to be "a symbol of what is great about Britain and we must do everything we can to maintain it" while one in five (21 per cent) saw it as "a great project for its time, but we probably can not maintain its current form".

That helps to explain why the 65th birthday of the NHS also provides the anniversary of 2013 which is most cherished by the public, proving more popular (on 54 per cent) than the 60th anniversary of the Coronation (43 per cent) with the discovery of the structure of DNA (29 per cent). Anniversaries of the London Underground  (15 per cent), the Beatles (15 per cent), Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (11 per cent) and the Football Association (eight per cent) and Doctor Who (seven per cent) trailed. The 40th anniversary of EEC membership did worst of all, with just three per cent of people choosing that as a source of British pride.

Firstly, the NHS fully merited its place in Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony. While attitudes on the performance of the NHS have fluctuated a great deal - affected by events, funding and political controversies -  commitment to its founding principles has remained remarkably consistent.

Secondly, there is a message for politicians here too. Politicians or wonks who want a radical overhaul of the NHS often express frustration at the level of public sentiment behind it, reflected in Nigel Lawson's famous rueful description of the NHS as "the closest thing the English have to a religion". The debate has echoes of that over the monarchy, with many of the roles reversed, as liberal-left defenders draw on a reservoir of symbolic sentiment, while right-of-centre wonks mutter about the difficulty of breaking through with a "rational debate" given the resonance of that frame.

The poll shows why it made a lot of sense for David Cameron to seek to define himself, in opposition, as a champion of the NHS, though the polarised controversy over the motives and outcomes of the coalition's NHS reforms made that a deeply contested question. The breadth of support for the NHS as a symbol in this poll underlines the lesson that support for change to the NHS depends on securing trust about motivation and intention. Any reform, from whatever poltical perspective, will have a chance of public support if changes are understood to be upholding the core NHS principles. They will be treated with suspicion if thought to be subverting them.  Those who want to change the NHS may need to learn to love it first.

But if the NHS represents a now deeply entrenched fairness ideal - that healthcare should not depend on the ability to pay - I suspect the strength of attachment to the NHS goes well beyond the politics of healthcare, and is much more personal, reflecting its presence on some of the most important days of our lives.

I am a child of the NHS. I feel a particular connection to it because I wouldn't exist without it.  I was born in a hospital, the Doncaster Royal Infirmary, in spring 1974, under the care of the NHS, because my parents, born 4,000 miles apart in Guajarat, India and Cork, Ireland, had both come to this country to work for the NHS. That is also the everyday story of how our most cherished national institution has always depended on immigration, and integration, to be able to offer its public service.

But my main memories of the NHS are that its hospitals are also where my children were born. It is where we have the serenity of knowing that we can go - once or twice on an  adventure to drive out to see the "night doctor" in the middle of the night - to check everything is OK. We cherish the NHS because it turns the idea of "cradle to grave" from a metaphor into a reality.

The only cloud on the horizon was a dip in support among the under-24s, who placed the army ahead of the NHS as a source of pride. That reflects a broader inter-generational erosion of support for ideas of welfare and social solidarity more generally, set out in Ipsos-Mori's work on attitudes shifts across generations.

There will be wide support for celebrating the 65th birthday of the NHS this year - but it may be an open question whether the moment could be used to extend its appeal for several more generations to come.

British Futures's new report, State of the Nation: Where is bittersweet Britain heading?, can be read here.

"The NHS fully merited its place in Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony". Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era