Michael Sheen was 100% right in his criticism of politicians lacking in conviction, but his sycophantic Aneurin Bevan worship and NHS fetishisation is the wrong prescription for Britain.
The British left has found itself a new saviour.
First came Owen Jones, rightly excoriating us for sneering at “chavs” while ignoring the failed policies through which we create and maintain a permanent underclass in Britain. “Our Generation’s Orwell”, as he was prematurely anointed by Russell Brand, offered us a rose-tinted stroll back to 1970s industrial strife and national decline.
But Owen Jones only baptises with water; Michael Sheen burst onto the political scene yesterday to anoint us with the Holy Spirit. That is, he sought to rally us around our true national religion, the National Health Service.
The actor Michael Sheen is best known for playing the role of Tony Blair on film and television (though he is far more entertaining as the character Wesley Snipes in NBC comedy 30 Rock). But he is now being praised to the rafters for this impassioned critique of our modern politicians at a St. David’s Day event to celebrate (or borderline worship) the life of Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS:
From the Guardian:
Sheen, in a stirring speech delivered from a bandstand in a blustery, rainswept park in the Welsh town of Tredegar, Bevan’s birthplace, attacked the caution of Labour’s leaders and their lack of conviction.
He said: “In today’s political climate, where politicians are careful, tentative, scared of saying what they feel for fear … all political parties drift into a morass of bland neutrality and the real values we suspect are kept behind closed doors. Is it any wonder that people feel there is little to choose between?”
He quoted Bevan saying that those who stayed in the middle of the road get run over.
Sheen appeared to plead directly to the Labour leadership. “You must stand up for what you believe, but first of all, by God, believe in something,” he said.
In the Huffington Post blog capitalising on the success of his speech, Michael Sheen writes:
The nation that swept the post-war Labour government into power was made up of people who had faced the horrors and the hardships of the second world war. And had bound together as one community to overcome them. They had been sustained and inspired by their feeling of comradeship, and their sense of responsibility for their fellow man and woman. Compelled to help those in need and those struggling in the face of hardship.
These were the experiences that shaped them, and this was the vision of life that the welfare state was born out of. Faced with an enemy that sought only to divide, the National Health Service strove for unity. Where they traded in fear-mongering, and blame, and exploitation of the vulnerable, the NHS represented compassion, and generosity, and acceptance. Where they slavered with voracious self-interest, the NHS symbolised courageous self-sacrifice for the good of all.
But this is precisely what is wrong with universal state-provided healthcare, not its great benefit. By its very nature, the power balance between the individual and the state is always skewed impossibly in favour of the latter. In Britain, the state has the power to coerce, punish, imprison, surveil, ignore, care for or reward the people through the mechanisms of the state schools, criminal justice system, tax code and the welfare state. We are literally moulded into the people we are by the state, whether we like it or not.
Therefore, we should be prohibitively cautious of any policy or development which gives the state more power over us. And besides the prison service, which keeps prisoners in custody and watches over them 24/7, what other government service has more power over us than the NHS?
This would not necessarily be a problem, but for the fact that we encounter the NHS when we are often at our weakest and most vulnerable – when we are sick in body or mind, when we are scared, in pain and uncertain of the future. How can we be objective about a service when we interact with it from the position of grateful supplicant?
Of course we can not. And neither could the British people make an objective decision about the correct balance between the citizen and the state, the individual and the free market, when they had been battered by World War 2 and stared invasion and death in the face.
And still the NHS in its original form may have been the optimal way to provide the best healthcare to the most people when it was founded, way back in 1948. But that was 67 years ago. People live much longer now, and there have been incredible advances in medical technologies – and their cost.
The NHS is now expected to do a lot more than bring you safely into the world, fix broken bones, remove cataracts and then hold your hand while you die. And these new demands are fundamentally incompatible with the current structure and funding system of the NHS.
Michael Sheen was right when he said:
In today’s political climate, where politicians are careful, tentative, scared of saying what they feel for fear of alienating a part of the electorate; where under the excuse of trying to appear electable, all parties drift into a morass of bland neutrality; and the real deals, the real values we suspect, are kept behind closed doors – is it any wonder that people feel there is very little to choose between?
But Sheen is wrong when he suggests that this “bland neutrality” is in any way threatening the NHS. Quite the opposite: the dull, lumpen mass of centrist political opinion is preserving the outdated NHS, not reforming it to meet the challenges of the future. For there is not an elected politician in all of Westminster who would dare to question the continued wisdom of centralised nationalised healthcare, or to be seen working against this dated ideal.
And while Sheen criticises the politicians, it is the unthinking British people who encourage their leaders to hold such inoffensive positions.
In December, this blog was appalled by the unthinking sentimentality behind the “Love you NHS” campaigns on Twitter and Facebook. We would not think of wearing t-shirts and lapel pins proclaiming our love of HM Revenue & Customs, though that department also serves a necessary function, and even our armed forces do not command such loyalty and respect (though they should).
My warning from that time is worth repeating:
The well-meaning but misguided public movement that unquestioningly supports the status quo, this moralising army of online NHS priests and priestesses, are part of Britain’s sickness, not her cure. They, like so many Britons today, have been raised and encouraged to believe that everything good comes from the state, and that there is something inherently dirty and untrustworthy about private enterprise. They subscribe to a false world view which believes there is only a fixed amount of money in circulation, and frets that any money received as profit must automatically mean less money being devoted to front line services.
It is long past time for the British people to disenthrall ourselves of these false dogmas, if we are truly serious about maintaining a world-class healthcare system at the heart of a prosperous country.
Michael Sheen was right to castigate the British political establishment for being too middle-of-the-road and for not telling the British people hard truths. But this “bland neutrality” is not leading us down the road to some dystopian ultra-Thatcherite nightmare. Rather, it is causing us to drift toward more of the same centrist acceptance of those stubborn, lingering remnants of the post-war consensus that still remain.
For all the hysterical left-wing scaremongering, the NHS isn’t going anywhere. Just look how the Conservatives are rushing to point out that Labour introduced more privatisation into the NHS than they did (and thus tacitly accepting the false premise that private healthcare provision is inherently bad). And even UKIP, that one-time radical libertarian party, now insists on painting itself as the one true party of the NHS as it seeks to capture the disaffected Labour vote.
Neither is the bloated welfare state going anywhere, for all the tinkering around the edges that Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit may achieve. There will still be millions of people dependent on the state for a substantial portion of their livelihoods after this five year government, just as there have been for decades.
Elsewhere, the educational establishment (otherwise known as “the blob”) succeeded in their defence of universal mediocrity by claiming the scalp of an excellent Education Secretary, Michael Gove, one of the few true small-government conservatives in David Cameron’s cabinet.
And all the while, spending on left wing priorities such as international aid (to countries such as India, with their own space programmes and nuclear arsenals) is ringfenced while the Defence budget withers in the face of Russian aggression and global uncertainty.
On all of these fronts the British left is winning, and yet their indignant screeching about the Evil Tories comes louder than ever, convinced as they are that Britain stands on the brink of a conservative apocalypse, far down the road to Wigan Pier.
And on St. David’s Day this festering left wing paranoia found articulate voice in the form of Michael Sheen, a man who made his on-screen career playing Tony Blair – because, for some unfathomable reason, there just isn’t much demand for movies about Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan.
“By God, believe in something,” begged Sheen of Britain’s politicians, as he addressed his newfound disciples in Tredegar. Amen to that much, at least.
But can’t we set the bar for political conviction a little higher than Michael Sheen’s brand of naive, sixth-form socialism?