Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A very British idol

The Olympics opening ceremony, says its creator Danny Boyle, was designed to “represent us and feel truthful”.  Actually, I think it succeeded in that.  The British are rather good at being truthful about themselves, sometimes perhaps too good.  Some have wondered whether the spectacle of our green and pleasant land being torn up and disfigured by the greedy ravages of the Industrial Revolution was a bit more truthful than the image we want to project to the world.  Perhaps.  But it is what actually happened, and is a crucial factor in the subsequent development not just of Britain, but of the entire planet.  Britain exported industry to its empire: factories and railway lines became as much a part of the local landscape in Bombay as in Birmingham.  This changed, profoundly and irrevocably, the way in which millions of us live; and for all its dirt and squalor and destruction, it was a revolution that spun us into what we think of as the modern world.  You can argue about how “good” this was; you can’t argue about how formational.  And it started here.  It is right that it should be included in a tableau of who we are in the world.

And then there was the NHS.  A headline in Monday’s London Evening Standard above a still of that child jumping above a hospital bed asked: “Is this the scene that won Labour the next election?”  Maybe.  But probably not.  I didn’t see it as having much in the way of political impact.  As part of a representation of who we are, the creation of the NHS is undoubtedly up there.  It’s easy to forget that, when it was implemented, the welfare state was itself truly revolutionary, unique in the non-communist world.  It changed people’s lives – including those of my parents and grandparents – immeasurably, and unquestionably for the better. Others have admired and been inspired by it.  And we did it – and did it, moreover at a time of acute national austerity. Of course we should celebrate it - even if so fulsome a tribute to something as apparently mundane as a healthcare service seems slightly mystifying to non-British audiences.

But there’s a clue here.  Because the reason we celebrate the NHS, of course, is not just because of its ground-breaking nature.  It’s also because we believe in it.  I’ve blogged before about it as a “national religion” and about why it’s not the one I profess.  But there’s an awful truth in Chesterton’s aphorism: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything”.  For, while I accept that there are plenty of us who believe in both God and the NHS, I suspect the British people have largely stopped consciously believing in the former, and that the latter is as good an “anything” as you could suggest.

That it is not good for them to be Godless, I have no doubt.  But that is it not good for the NHS to be elevated to take His place, I am also quite sure.  It is a system for delivering health care, nothing more.  It was revolutionary; it was altruistic; it was courageous.  But the world, and Britain, has moved on.  What promised a sort of salvation 60 years ago now has an uncanny knack of making people frustrated and angry.  A more-than trebling of its funding over the last 15 years has revealed that the NHS’s real shortcomings are too deeply seated for money to reach.  Yet if a government so much as proposes to tinker with it, it is showered with abuse and risks political suicide.  The NHS does not need reforming; it needs rebuilding.  And for something new to be built, the pre-existing structure has to be demolished.  But who will dare to break the idol?


  1. Naturally, as a non-believer, I take some issue with Chesterton's assertion. He's right that having a God acts a focal point or epicentre for one's beliefs; wrong in that the absence thereof is not a recipe for 'anything goes'. I fervently believe in the principles of the NHS but, in being able to critique its structure, it is not an icon/idol for me - and I am at liberty to scrutinise it without fear of consequences in the next life.

    Despite my non-belief, I understand the sacred at an emotional level. For instance, I can admit I am emotionally invested in the works of Shakespeare and I treat them with a reverence I afford to little else (perhaps equal with others' reverence for the Gospels?); I take perosnal offence at the de Vere conspiracy theories. But again, I can be critical of Shakespeare without fearing consequences.

    That's where I think Chesterton goes slightly awry. Believing in one or many things which are not God is no bad thing. Chesterton's 'anything goes' suggestion naturally supposes people will not be able to discern right belief from wrong without God. I do not agree, but insofar as that is true, I cannot exempt the godly from such an observation either. But where there is (I think) a loss is that religion has a cohesive social power that is not properly matched by a secular alternative. The NHS is a worthy thing to believe in (and we need not be 'NHS fearing' in the same way as we might be God fearing) but it doesn't bring our communities together on a Sunday morning.

  2. Thanks for this, Ian. I like your comparison with Shakespeare - whom I also revere, and in a way which has a strong spiritual quality. (Apropos of which, did you read Roger Scruton's essay on 'judgement"?) But please believe that I am quite free and ready to criticise the Church, and even aspects of the Christian faith, without "fear of the consequences". My religious adherence is ultimately a liberating rather than a restraining thing.

    You may be right about GKC. His aphorisms are witty and highly quotable (and surprisingly timeless) but also sometimes a bit pat.

  3. I am quite late (though very eager) in learning about religion, both from the critical side as well as the faithful. When I first read the Gospels I thought some of it was very terrifying, from which I get the strong impression of consequences. I am always open to correction.

    I have not read Scruton's essay, though I should be very pleased to read it. One author/poet I am very new in exploring is Blake, whose spiritual contemplations are quite astonishing. I know very little about him, he is my next project. In first comparisons, Shakespeare is much more 'earthy' (I do not mean that in any pejorative sense).

    In returning to your original post, I was thinking about the distinction between rebuilding and reforming. You're perfectly right, it has become untouchable, which is a shame: if the present edifice does the principle (in which we all believe) no justice, then it ought to be replaced with something that does. I think politicians are wary in different ways: it is suspected (in some few cases, justifiably) that Tories don't believe in the principle and wish to extinguish it. As for Labour, I think there'a a denial problem, as though to criticise the structure be in some way to impugn the principle, to accept its impossibility. Tories can't, Labour won't.

    Everything has a lifespan, has vigourous youth, decays and dies. The NHS is an old lady, fit for her own time, ready to give way to a new generation. But losing a loved one is never easy.