One of the most curious political phenomena of the western world is the indestructible affection in which the British hold their National Health Service. No argument, no criticism, no evidence can diminish, let alone destroy, it. The only permissible criticism of it is that the government does not spend enough on it, a ‘meanness’ (with other people’s money) to which all the service’s shortcomings are attributable. In effect, the NHS is the national religion.
“Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?” — Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
In a world of perfect justice, each man would receive his due and nothing else, as Shakespeare’s words suggest. Whether such a world is possible or even desirable is another question.
General elections in modern democracies bore much of the population—perhaps most of it. They even seem to many a form of slow torture by means of constant and inescapable publicity and propaganda in favor of the nonentities who stand for public office. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to despise practical politics on the grounds that politicians are all the same, which is to say no good. Such indiscriminate disdain creates an opening for a more extreme and dangerous form of politics that preys upon universal discontent.
Still, in almost every Western democracy, there is a growing feeling that the political class (including its bureaucratic allies) has become more like a caste—a self-enclosed and self-perpetuating group of people that arrogates privileges to itself, through the enjoyment of which it insulates itself from the rest of the population, whose interests it has therefore no reason to share or understand. We the people increasingly believe that the division between the political class and everyone else is much greater than any factional divisions within the political class.
My favorite title of all the books that I possess is A Brief Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity. It’s by Walter B. Pitkin, and was published in 1932 in nearly 600 closely printed pages. The author promised a 40-volume encyclopedia of the subject. While he never got around to starting, let alone completing, that project, the title of the book he did finish is sufficient in my opinion to confer immortality upon Walter B. Pitkin.
The philosopher Mary Midgley tells us that myth is not just an obstacle to thought, or even merely an adjunct to thought, but an essential part of human ratiocination itself. Whether this is actually so or not in the philosophical sense, namely that human thought is completely impossible without the making and use of myth, I do not know; but what is certainly the case is that mythology is a powerful force in human affairs, not least in politics. And myth can do harm as well as good.
In Britain, the most powerful political mythology (perhaps for lack of any other) attaches to the National Health Service (NHS). This way of organising our health care was born with original virtue in 1948, since its conception, in more senses than one, it has become more and more immaculate. If the service had a slogan, it would be Noli me tangere. No British politician would dare admit that its institution was anything other than an unmixed blessing; no British politician, at any rate none who aspired to office, would dare do anything other than tinker with it at most. Against the mythology, Mrs Thatcher herself was as helpless as a day-old kitten.