By Daniel Margrain
A century or so ago, the Russian Marxist Nicolai Bukharin understood that the growth of international corporations and their close association with national states was symptomatic of how both aspects hollow out the parliamentary system. It is now widely recognized that the power of private lobbying money draws power upwards into the executive and non-elected parts of the state dominated by corporations. Consequently this leads to a reduction in democratic accountability and public transparency.
Internal markets, market testing, contracting out, privatization, encouraging private pensions and all the rest, are mechanisms that are intended to depoliticise the process of social provision, so making it easier to refuse it to those deemed not to deserve it on the one hand, and to clamp down on the workers in the welfare sector on the other. This ethos became established in the late 1980s under Margaret Thatcher during her third term in office.
Removing the foundations of the welfare state
Following the advice of the then chief executive of Sainsbury’s, Sir Roy Griffiths in 1987, the Thatcher government set about removing the foundations upon which the welfare state had been built. Camouflaged in the language of ‘public-private partnerships’, Tony Blair’s New Labour took this one stage further as a result of his envisaging the state as the purchaser rather than direct provider of services. Whole entities within the public sector have increasingly been outsourced, health and social care services privatized and competition and the business ethos introduced into public services in the form of managerialism and New Public Management.
Thus, within residential care, patients have been recast as customers. The aim is to ensure the domination of the market by a small number of very powerful multinational corporations whose primary concern is not the welfare of the residents in care homes which they own or patients in hospitals but with maximizing profits.
The carving up of the NHS opens up one of the worlds biggest investment opportunities. Indeed, its exploitation by private interests is proceeding at a pace. This is hardly surprising given the 2014 revelation that 70 MPs have financial links to private healthcare firms while hundreds of private healthcare corporations have donated to Tory coffers.
There exists a symbiotic relationship between privatization and what Noam Chomsky refers to as a policy strategy of “defunding”. In line with Chomsky’s notion, the aim over the last three decades has been to shrink the NHS and bring it to the point of collapse as the basis for then claiming the only solution is more privatization. In Orwellian terms, health under-funding is portrayed in the media as “unprecedented levels of overspending by hospitals and NHS trusts.”
Health and Social Care Act
The 2012 Health and Social Care Act removes the duty on the Secretary of State for Health to provide a comprehensive health service and requires that up to 49 percent of services can be tendered out to “any qualified provider.” As early as 2013, between a quarter and a half of all community services were run by Virgin Care. Three years later, the corporation had won £700m worth of NHS and social service contracts.
The retreating by the state from the principle of universal health care provision, free at the point of delivery, can be pin-pointed to 1988 when Tory politician, Oliver Letwin, wrote a ‘blueprint’ document called ‘Britain’s Biggest Enterprise’ where he set out the stages governments’ would have to go through to achieve a US model of health care without the public noticing. The New Labour government under Tony Blair adopted Letwin’s principles. But prior to the 1997 General Election, Blair had to disguise the strategy by using dissembling language in order to get elected.
Once in power, Blair took several steps towards privatization. For example, he broke up the hospital network into foundation trusts which are essentially separate business entities. He also deliberately saddled hospitals with Private Finance Initiative (PFI) liabilities which involved the government borrowing £11 billion from private banks and financiers in order to justify the sale and breakdown of the NHS further down the line.
This culminated with the New Labour government introducing in 2009 what was termed the “unsustainable provider regime” which is a fake bankruptcy framework to justify closing hospitals. The £11 billion of PFI public money borrowed from the banks and injected into the NHS is, in the words of ‘Save Our NHS’ activist Dr Bob Gill, intended to “set up the infrastructure for the whole scale hand-over of our NHS to American corporations.”
Arguably, the most influential individual currently working in the NHS is former Labour councillor, Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England. After having served under the Blair government, Stevens went on to work for the US private health care provider, United Health, where he campaigned against Obama Care prior to campaigning for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to be included within the UK health care remit. Those encouraged by the election of Jeremy Corbyn are still waiting to hear something from the shadow health team about this troubling development.
Controversially, Stevens introduced NHS England’s ‘Sustainability and Transformation Plans’ which form part of the annual HHS Planning Guidance. ‘Sustainability and transformation’ is Orwellian-speak for the move towards the total reorganization of the NHS predicated on more privatizations and cuts.
Two years ago this month, Dr Bob Gill attended a meeting to get some insight into what the position of the then Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Heidi Alexander, was in relation to the direction NHS England was moving in under Stevens. What he heard were narratives that fitted into the ongoing privatization agenda. According to Gill, Alexander expressed support for Simon Stevens, despite his appalling track record. There is no indication that neither the Labour leader, nor current Shadow Health minister, Jon Ashworth, intend to take Stevens to task.
This is extremely worrying given that Stevens appears to be less committed to ethics and patient care, and more concerned with perpetuating the notion that medicine is a profit-based ‘conveyor belt’ service. Could it be the case that Corbyn has underestimated the extent to which the corrupting influence of corporations and the power of lobbying money have hollowed out the parliamentary system as outlined by Bukharin a century ago?
If you’ve enjoyed reading this or another posting, please consider making a donation, no matter how small. I don’t make any money from my work, and I’m not funded. You can help continue my research and write independently.… Thanks!