The NHS Jarrow March Protesters, In Their Own Words

SOS NHS Jarrow March


It is easy to learn precisely what the people marching from Jarrow to London in support of the NHS do not want. To their credit, the protesters make their immovable red lines very clear indeed.

No privatisation, ever. Anyone who even thinks about delivering a healthcare service to the public must receive their pay cheque from the government and not a private employer.  No cutbacks, ever. Services can only ever expand and grow, even if they are poorly geographically located or less essential than they once were. And most importantly of all, no Tories are to go anywhere near the NHS.

By contrast, you have to search the internet long and hard to find examples of what the #MarchForNHS protesters actually support in any detail at all, beyond the most primal, inchoate instinct to keep spending money on an unreformed artefact from 1948.

The 999 Blog999 Call For The NHS’s collection of personal testimonies from the marchers – contains a lot of emotional accounts and expressions of gratitude for having been successfully treated in an NHS hospital, but it is generally deficient in explaining why privatisation is inherently bad and why centralised state ownership is the only model worth pursuing.

As this blog has already noted, many of the protesters have moved quite a long way from the founding vision of the NHS toward a more muscular but unthinking form of socialism that reflexively defends state ownership with almost no regard for health outcome consequences.

Since the British left’s most prominent politicians are unwilling to spell out exactly what they would do to improve healthcare in Britain – beyond preserving the unsatisfactory status quo for ever – the Jarrow marchers are some of the most credible voices from the left participating in the debate. Ed Miliband is certainly happy to exploit individual instances of NHS reorganisation to win strategic advantage in target constituencies, but good luck getting him to tell you his overall vision for the British healthcare system.

So, as the only voices on the left willing to express an opinion, what exactly are the NHS Jarrow marchers saying? Here is a summary, together with some essential counterpoints that should be considered by anyone who believes that good quality healthcare is more important than any emotional attachment to a government bureaucracy.

On a personal note, my youngest daughter was admitted to the special care baby unit when she was born with breathing difficulties. Without that care and support she would have died. Only the NHS can provide this. This service, like so many others in the NHS, was threatened with closure – Steven Sweeney, lifelong NHS employee

And more in the same style:

I know how the NHS has helped me. I was born in an NHS hospital with no complications for me or my mother. As a baby my elbow was dislocated, and an NHS doctor popped it back in place. As a toddler I was treated for severe asthma, which thanks to the NHS is no longer a problem for me. My father was treated for a heart attack and had life-saving heart bypass surgery.

Incredibly 10 years on, he is in excellent health. I have no idea how we could have possibly afforded to pay for his open heart surgery had the NHS not existed. And now I have the privilege of working with NHS doctors and scientists to hopefully find the next treatment for heart disease – Dr. Anusha Seneviratne

Fancy that. Someone was born in an NHS hospital and received treatment or minor ailments throughout their life without major incident, and from this heartwarming tale we are supposed to extrapolate that anywhere else in the western world, babies are routinely born in dumpsters and euthanised in the event that they dislocate a joint. This testimonial – from a doctor, most worryingly of all – is weak praise for healthcare in general, but has absolutely nothing to say about why the NHS is uniquely suited to deliver it.

In the day time on a ward there is a mass flurry of activity and a range of noises of people, equipment, talking, crying and laughter, and buzzers are muted, yet on a night the buzzers sound louder and appear to be rung often, and often. Whilst I sat with my dad I could hear staff moving around the ward making patients comfortable, caring and reassuring patients who felt scared for being there in the first place. I spent most of the night just listening to my dad breathe. It was reassuring – Rehana Azam, 999 Call For The NHS Co-founder

There is something almost unseemly about using the traumas and emotional family experiences of the general public to build support for a government bureaucracy in this way. What Rehana Azam describes here (in a moving account of her father’s hospitalisation and death) are the functions of any modern hospital, not just a publicly-owned and operated one. But taking this natural gratitude for lives saved or made more bearable and turning it into publicity for a campaign to prevent modernisation of Britain’s largest employer does nothing to advance the serious conversation that Britain needs.

We have a local vested interest in preserving the NHS as it is: the miners of Mansfield and district helped build it through their taxes, believing it would be there for themselves, their children and grandchildren and the common good – Sophie Hebden, bystander

Yes, we all “helped build the NHS” through our taxes – as we did the Navy, our schools, the road network and our nuclear deterrent. That’s how governments do things – they raise revenue by taxing the population, and then spend the revenues (hopefully) on services that promote the common good. But again (and this response seems typical of many bystanders who find themselves supporting the marchers without really being able to articulate why) it gives no reason as to why healthcare could not be provided free at the point of use using a different or improved model.

Yesterday I received a letter from my uncle in the US – “something to use for your campaign”. It contained his most recent medical bill for his cancer treatment. It made difficult reading, because it was such a stark reminder of how poorly he is. But it also made me angry on his behalf, and more determined than ever to fight this, and spread the word. Because there is a danger that we’re sleepwalking towards that situation here ourselves. I don’t want our healthcare to take even one step down that path – Emma Tyers, volunteer National Coordinator

No one in their right mind would advocate moving towards the example offered by the “best healthcare system on the face of the Earth”, as some myopic Americans wrongly view their awful creation. But the choice Britain faces is not some extreme binary contest between legions of undertreated uninsured people on one hand, and our tattered but plucky nationalised system on the other.

There are so many different ways in which the British government could provide its citizens with healthcare free at the point of use in perpetuity  – with either minor or major reforms to the NHS – but none of these can be discussed as long as the spectre of the American nightmare is held up to scaremonger and quell debate.

I am joining the March in Bedford & Luton as I cannot stand by and watch as the Tories systematically destroy and privatise our NHS — an NHS that was fought for by working-class people and represented a major step forward for the health of the nation. One Community. One goal. Save our NHS – Steven Sweeney

And here comes the ideology. No protest in defence of preserving the NHS in formaldehyde would be complete without the obligatory boasts from the left that they created the National Health Service, and warnings that only they can be trusted with it. And it is true – the NHS is far from the worst possible way of administering healthcare to a population, and represented a huge improvement on what came before. But again, we see too many people who are now more committed to the organisation itself than to the principles that it stands for (healthcare free at the point of use).

If you have been relying on the BBC for your news, you will have no idea that we now face the possibility of no longer having access to free healthcare by the next general election, and blunders could become the norm with a privatised health service, prioritising profit over welfare.

People from countries all over the world envy our national health service and yet our government is destroying it before our very eyes, just to gain lucrative business deals from their pals. If we don’t act now, our NHS will disappear and we could pay with our lives, literally. After all good health is not a privilege, it is a human right. So think to yourself, how has the NHS helped you and could you live without it? – Dr Anusha Seneviratne

Now the scaremongering really begins. Did you know that there might not be healthcare in Britain any more if the Tories win the 2015 general election? You didn’t? That’s because it’s not true, a blatant falsehood and fabrication deliberately and underhandedly put about to scare people into supporting the status quo.

Furthermore, encouraging people to think about how the NHS has helped them without pointing out that in its absence some other system would inevitably do a similar job is an intellectually dishonest approach to fostering debate. It could well be the case that universal healthcare free at the point of use was best delivered through a nationalised provider as Britain dragged itself through the post-war doldrums. But is this necessarily still the case? And why must people who dare to ask the question be labelled dangerous extremists who want to abolish healthcare altogether?

The latter-day Jarrow marchers will likely hate the comparison, but in their rigid, immovable opposition to healthcare reform of any kind, they are holding up the NHS as a paragon of better times past in the same way that Prince Charles waxes nostalgic about Regency architecture and despises anything modern. Just as the heir to the throne is convinced that Britain’s architectural heyday peaked in 1710 with the completion of St. Paul’s Cathedral and recoils from anything built of glass and steel, so it seems do many of the most ardent NHS fanatics believe that the NHS founding in 1948 represents the snapshot of Britain that should be preserved above all others.

The reality is that just as architecture went through many fashions and phases to leave the London skyline that we now recognise and love, government policy on healthcare also has to change and adapt to the times. St. Paul’s Cathedral is wonderful, but the building of Coventry Cathedral or the Shard did nothing to diminish its place in our hearts. Likewise, the NHS in its original form may have been the best option for Britain in 1948, but we should at least be allowed to talk about whether nationalised healthcare delivery is still be best way to go.

And we should be able to do so without being called callous, unfeeling, overprivileged elitists by those marching down from Jarrow.


Semi-Partisan Sam will be covering the final stage of the NHS Jarrow march live on Saturday 6th September, live-tweeting from the event and hopefully interviewing some of the marchers and the special guests at the concluding rally in Parliament Square. Stay tuned to @SamHooper on Twitter for real-time updates.


Cover Image: “South Shields MP joins protesters on modern Jarrow march”, Evening Chronicle, 20th August 2014


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