There’s a lot said in Britain about how we’re closer in spirit to Anglophone North America than to continental Europe – as if to prove my point, I had to add the word “continental” to that last sentence on a second reading. This often rears its head in the debate over British EU integration, leading to the farcical suggestion that we ditch Europe in favour of joining NAFTA (the North, um, American Free Trade Agreement). This lobby has been quieter of late – there is speculation that someone may have shown them a map.
Every so often a news story comes along which gives the lie to this notion that the historical accident of speaking the same language somehow trumps millennia of shared history. As if the ongoing debate about the place of creationism (or “Intelligent Design”) on the school curriculum wasn’t enough to suggest that we’re sometimes on very different pages indeed, the debate over health care reform has recently become personal, with the Republican party taking a tack that surely few in Britain can find anything but ridiculous: that the NHS is an “evil and Orwellian” system that presumes to set the value of individual lives in determining access to medication.
The NHS is a flawed system, falling far short of its own lofty aspirations, and we Brits can trash it perfectly well without anyone else’s help. But it doesn’t half stick in the craw to hear this from a nation that rations access to healthcare not on grounds of cost-effectiveness, but rather on ability to pay. Though the NHS has struggled to keep up with rising costs, not to mention the shift away from the progressive taxation that Bevan saw as central to the project, I feel great pride to be from a country which took the remarkably radical decision, surveying the wreckage of post-war Britain, to establish health care, from cradle to grave, as a right not a privilege. This was to be free to all at the point of use, a remarkable leap for a country that had only fully lifted property restrictions on suffrage twenty years before.
It’s probably unfair to base our understanding of American views and values on these Republican voices, but also true that they somehow echo the loudest across the pond. They also weight the average, and exert a powerful rightward sway – a 2008 poll in The Economist found “average America” to be significantly to the right of the UK on most issues, and shockingly so on religious matters and “family values”. So while it’s tempting to laugh when they get things so very far wrong – most Europeans associate Hitler with war, repression and genocide, not welfare provision – it’s less funny to speculate about the very real influence these delusions can have.
From here on August 18th 2009.