I attended Stella Feehily’s marvellous, important play, This May Hurt a Bit, at The Playhouse, Liverpool (09 05 2014). Another outstanding Out of Joint production, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, it is a well researched, powerful script, beautifully dramatized, and staged with conviction and imagination.
The terrific cast made the most of their different characters and situations, and delivered lines that simultaneously wove multiple, complex narratives and relationships that crackled with the human and political issues raised by the current ‘reorganisation’ of the NHS, and which were of course relevant to every audience member. It was a challenging as well as very moving experience (as was noted from the floor afterwards)
The play is hopefully raising awareness of the issues arising out of the latest Tory NHS reorganisation (read Cuts, fragmentation, privatization, deterioration, damage)[i] to a wide audience across the country. One young woman said afterwards that she was one of those who always assumed the NHS would be there. Many audience members stayed behind for the post-performance discussion with the cast, which could have extended further into the night, as individuals rushed to speak, comment and share experience.
Post performance discussion.
I came away quite distressed and awoke in the very early hours the following morning with thoughts racing round my head. A sense of desperation and frustration prevailed. On the basis of my experience of the post performance discussion the previous evening, I emailed some of the following thoughts to friends / NHS activists I knew would be attending the play the next evening:
- There is likely to be at least one person who shares their story of how the NHS ‘killed’ a loved one and/or failed to provide effectively for someone / those affected by dementia. This is of course disturbing for everyone, and hard to manage within the context of such a discussion.
- There is also likely to be at least one person sharing their experience of changes in NHS conditions of service, working practices, as a result of burgeoning privatisation and the Cuts. After one such contribution, I asked the speaker (working in mental health practice) which union he was in, and he waived my question aside, without identifying the relevant union, remarking that they were either rubbish or irrelevant – I didn’t catch which, but I got the gist.
- There will be those admitting (some shamefacedly) that they had not realised what was happening, what had already happened. And how were they supposed to know?[ii]
- There will be those affirming that they definitely do not want to lose the NHS to privatisation.[iii]
- There will be those who wish to share their vehement refusal to vote for the Labour Party.
- There will be those who re-iterate that “all politicians are the same” and none can be trusted, etc..
The logic of the latter views is to step aside and not vote, and let through whoever/whatever. . . . I found this alarming. Their inaction will have consequences for everyone else: and most significantly, people with disabilities, chronic conditions, those on benefits, the homeless, those suffering trauma-related conditions, etc.. I understand the sense of powerlessness and defeatism, faced with a government implementing wide-ranging and destructive policies that none of us actually voted for, but I cannot accept that there is nothing we can do if we act collectively. I cannot accept defeat.
On the other hand, I was greeted with applause when I argued that the NHS was not just a service, that the issues were not just technical or organisational, but that it represents the core values of our society, in terms of what kind of society we want to be. I also found myself sitting next to a young NHS activist. We talked at some length, and she seemed really aware of the dangers.
But there was no time to say that this is not just about the NHS, but that the Tories’ (long planned) aim is to destroy / dismantle / privatise the whole of the public sector.[iv] It struck me that there will be people who do not know what the public sector is (NB its not-for-profit values, and how it was developed in the postwar years), and why it is so important (such anathema) to the Tories in their search for more and expanded markets and sources for profit for their friends and relatives. I did not manage to say why marketisation is wholly inappropriate and dangerous for the public sector; that there are areas of human activity and endeavor that should not be privatized / marketised, such as healthcare, social care, education, probation and prisons.[v]
Envisioning the future, instead of bemoaning the past.
I tried to point out the contradictions arising from comments that lump all politicians as one kind, disreputable, etc., as a reason for not voting, by asking: Did they think voting for Thatcher had made no difference?[vi] Voting for Blair? Voting for Cameron, etc., etc.? I also mentioned the BNP’s Nick Griffin’s squeaky pass as MEP for the NW 5 years ago, because some people who think of themselves as perhaps more ‘political’ than others, decided that preventing a fascist acquiring the status and money that went with the EU job, was less important than asserting some personal vendetta against a candidate/Party who realistically would have stopped him.
So, my main disappointments and worries were the look-back-and-blame-Blair stance, because it has consequences for now and the future. I don’t disagree with that as a point of view, but find it counter productive in terms of a strategic way forward at this desperate time. It is individual, a private indulgence, rather than a politics; akin to the obsessive, personal blaming you see people stuck in in private life, as they try to ‘win’ the argument about their shared past, destroy the Other, and cleave to revenge tactics that prevent any forward movement, any letting go in favour of a more creative, productive strategy that will actually yield a decent future.
Whatever else he did, Blair poured money into the NHS (as was pointed out) and raised the quality of service provision and working conditions in line with other European countries. The amount of destruction since 2010 under this Tory government, with further plans for lethal next steps, seems more significant for all our futures, than harping on about that particular perma-tanned ego on legs.
But of course it is easier to obsessively repeat those old grudges and griefs, than to put our heads and hearts together to imagine and work (together) for something else. It’s the least skilled, lazy option, as well as the most unwise. Allowing Blair/New Labour to continue to consume our political energies, and thereby block our social and political imagination, including our ability and willingness to build effective alliances between the many constituencies disadvantaged and/or ruined by this government, is immature, unproductive, socially irresponsible, and a total gift to the real opposition: the Tories and those they will always represent [vii]
On reflection, what was disturbing on this occasion was the sense that I was witnessing a wholesale retreat from collective action: unions are rubbish or irrelevant; the Labour Party ditto; electoral process ditto. Well, let’s all just jump off the cliff now, rather than bother to try to impact and change any of these institutions. It felt like proof positive of the success of the neoliberal individualisation / fragmentation agenda. Alternatively, shopping, even if short-lived, will anaesthetize us, will suffice as a life substitute: less demanding, intellectually, emotionally and organizationally. And offering instant, uncomplicated gratification. . . . while we can afford it.
The historical rightwing scam has long been to get people to vote against their own class interests, to vote to be ruled and managed, by voting for the Right (the Masters). In the wake of the last 30+ years of neoliberalism, as more people in the UK retreat from identifying with each other socially and politically, beyond individualist, ethnic and/or nationalist identities and consumerist categories, the easier that rightwing agenda becomes. And the neoliberal discourse of ‘choice’ masks corporate coercion as it encourages social competitiveness and fragmentation, at the expense of social cohesion and political solidarity. As a society, as a people, we need to get our act together and quick.
[i] See Jacky Davis & Raymond Tallis (2012) NHS SOS. How the NHS Was Betrayed and How We Can Save It.
[ii] See Colin Leys & Stewart Player (2011) The Plot Against the NHS.
[iii] They might like to read Roger Taylor (2013) God Bless the NHS: The Truth Behind the Current Crisis.
[iv] See Oliver Letwin (1988) Privatising the World.
[v] See Michael Sandel (2012) Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
[vi] See http://pcwww.liv.ac.uk/~alexss/thatcherism.pdf
[vii] To draw on consumer culture for an analogy: if there is no toothpaste that suits your taste and you find them all unacceptable for some reason, what do you do? Refuse to compromise and make a purchase? Let your breath smell and your teeth rot? While feeling good about your ‘ethical’ stance and superior taste . . . .