British like their healthcare, don't care what you think

The GOP thinks the U.K.'s system is a dystopian nightmare; the Brits think the GOP should be quiet

Published August 14, 2009 4:01PM (EDT)

When Mick Jagger sings the song “Dear Doctor,” he sort of fakes an American accent. After all, the song’s protagonist asks his doctor to cut out his heart, and only in the wild and wooly free healthcare market of the U.S. would any sawbones with an ounce of ethics consider such a thing. But hey, to Republicans, that’s probably a plus about the American system. Pay for what you want, right?

In fact, it's lately been one of the GOP's favorite touchstones in the healthcare debate. Republicans love to talk about lines for care in the U.K.’s stolid socialized system: Go on the government’s dime for medicine, and you’ll die waiting for that easy surgery!

Seeking to play up this groundbreaking “Be frightened of England” angle, the Republican National Committee ran a web ad warning, "In Great Britain, individuals lose their right to make their own health care choices.” The Club for Growth, a conservative group, has a spot claiming that British bureaucrats pegged the value of six months of life at $22,750. “Under their socialized system, if your treatment costs more, you're out of luck,” the ad's narrator says as the spot cuts back and forth from weeping elderly people to Big Ben and the British flag.

Perhaps most egregiously, Investor’s Business Daily (IBD) warned that socialized medicine would be a death sentence for the vulnerable among us, like ALS-afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking. IBD editorialized, “People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.”

Hawking is, of course, a professor at the University of Cambridge, and quite British. (The editorial has since been changed to accommodate this seemingly overwhelming disproof.)

Naturally, the British didn’t cotton to having their healthcare system conscripted to serve as a bogeyman. You see, not only are the British not currently being stomped on by the heel of a socialist-fascist-whatever Orwellian dictatorship, they actually quite like the way things over there work. In the U.K., the National Health Service (NHS) plays approximately the political role that Social Security does here. Sure, it may have been controversial to establish: Although Winston Churchill helped lay the groundwork for the NHS, he also warned during the 1945 campaign that the Labour Party's welfare state ideas would require “some kind of Gestapo” to administer. (Sound familiar?) But once it was written into law, messing with the NHS became political poison. Even Margaret Thatcher, at the height of her power, never dared to try.

That’s probably why Hawking says of British healthcare, “I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS.” The past few days have also seen a spike in the Twitter topic trend, #welovetheNHS, including tweets from Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah Brown. Even David Cameron, the head of the Conservative Party and leader of the opposition, has felt compelled to declare, “I support the NHS 100 percent and the Conservative Party supports the NHS 100 percent.”

The GOP really ought to have been more careful about this. If you’re going to use another country’s policy as a foil, you first might want to check to make sure that policy is not, in fact, overwhelmingly popular. And if you really want to go ahead with it even then, probably best to pick a country that doesn’t speak English.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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