A few weeks ago, I sat down with Daniel Hannan, the Milton Friedman-loving member of European Parliament representing South East England, to discuss his infamous showdown with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his opinion of the British National Health Service (NHS), and what the Republicans could learn from the recent successes of Britain's Conservative Party. When I asked Hannan his opinion of Tory party leader David Cameron—who, I argued, “lurched towards the center” in search of popularity—he demonstrated unswerving party loyalty. Cameron, he admonished, was hardly a Tory wet and is more committed to free-market ideas than his old guard Thatcherite critics were willing to admit.
The following day, Hannan repeated his criticisms of the NHS on the Fox News Channel, warning Americans that his country's health system was a "60-year failure" that he "wouldn't wish on anybody." He delivered a stark verdict:
I find it incredible that a free people living in a country dedicated and founded in the cause of independence and freedom can seriously be thinking about adopting such a system in peacetime and massively expanding the role of the state when there's no need.
Had Hannan muttered dark warnings about the British health service's sustainability on the floor of the European Parliament, the Labour Party would surely have made political hay out of it, arguing as they often do that the Tories, if given power, would speedily dismantle the NHS and replace it with a more American-style system. But this was something else entirely. To go to America, to appear on Fox News, and denounce Nye Bevan's "post-war achievement" was too much for both Labourites and squishy Conservatives.
|Click above to watch MEP Daniel Hannan discuss his libertarian influences, the NHS, and his YouTube attack on Gordon Brown|
The loyal lieutenant, who a day earlier had batted away my criticism of David Cameron's "New Tories," was about to be hurled under the bus by his party leader. "Cameron slaps down NHS 'traitor' MEP who branded health service a failure," read The Daily Mail headline. The BBC reported that Timothy Kirkhope, leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, believed Hannan "should be disciplined for his comments about the NHS and said he would be given a 'stern talking to' by the party's chief whip Brussels."
Hannan's opponents in the increasingly unpopular Labour Party seized the opportunity to defend the popular NHS by launching a full-scale attack on the Tory libertarian. Health Secretary Andy Burnham sputtered that criticism of the NHS "is unpatriotic because he is talking in foreign media and not representing, in my view, the views of the vast majority of British people and actually, I think giving an unfair impression of the National Health Service himself, a British representative on foreign media." Those British journalists who gasped when the Dixie Chicks, after excoriating George W. Bush in London, were accused of being patriotism-deficient, have been conspicuously silent when the government of Gordon Brown takes a similar line to Tory "dissent."
On Channel 4 (which receives some funding from taxpayers), writer and television personality Charlie Brooker barked that Hannan is a "boggle-eyed, slap-headed, unpleasant, revolting, heartless, shit-brained, attention-grabbing, foetid excuse for a prick." British users of Twitter were encouraged to replace their profile photos with a "We Love the NHS" icon, publicly declaring their loyalty to Britain's largest employer. (Indeed, as Hannan explained to Fox News, "most of [the NHS's] 1.4 million [employees] are administrators...the managers outnumber the doctors and nurses. And that is the electoral bloc that makes it almost impossible to get rid of.")
The only reasonable criticism of the rogue MEP came from conservative Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, who observed, with appropriate bafflement, that "Hannan is quite principled and really ought to know better than to belong to the Tories at all."
So why the kerfuffle? Where is that stiff upper lip in the face of criticism? The New York Times' indispensable London correspondent Sarah Lyall noted that Britons "complain endlessly" about the NHS, "deplore the system’s waiting lists, its regional disparities in treatment, its infection-breeding hospitals and its top-heavy bureaucracy," but can get "a bit touchy when outsiders are the critics." Professor Karol Sikora, a British critic of the NHS, was denounced by a fellow doctor as "spearheading a right-wing American campaign to denigrate the British National Health Service."
The point, though, is not whether those living in the United Kingdom receive competent—or even occasionally outstanding—care in a socialized scheme like the NHS. It is doubtless true that the British health services “saved the life” of Stephen Hawking, just as the drug company that developed synthetic insulin surely saved—or greatly lengthened—mine. The question is not whether a wealthy, Western country with well-trained doctors and nurses is capable of provided decent treatment, but whether government-run systems, which require the rationing of care to limit always-expanding costs, are the most effective way to provide broad health coverage to American citizens.