Dr Phil Hammond, broadcaster and sessional GP in Bristol

Is the Scottish NHS the best in the UK?

Part of putting on a comedy show is choosing the right music to walk on stage to. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival, I was going to go for the O’Jays: ‘People all over the world (everybody), join hands, start a love train.’ But as most of England seems to be on fire this morning, I’m not sure it captures the mood. The riots haven’t reached Scotland yet, which could mean either the Scottish are more decent and civilised than the English or perhaps they’re too drunk to move. The media is pretty good at fanning the flames so maybe it will only be a matter of time before Cameron’s big society catches fire up here. But I hope not.

Stand up is partly therapy for me. When you write a show, you’re not just testing out jokes but ideas. I had hoped to come to Scotland and get away from politicians who have rolled over for Rupert Murdoch, but even the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, has been feverishly getting into Murdoch’s good books. The Telegraph called it a ‘seduction’, listing little gifts and a letter addressed to ‘Sir Rupert’ even though he’s never been knighted.1 It’s times like this that I’m glad I write for Private Eye. It may not always be right, but it’s the closest we have in the UK to a free press.

The Scottish Government deserves credit for repelling the worst excesses of the NHS market. While the English NHS has re-disorganised itself into ridiculous confusion, the Scottish NHS has a stable structure, less private work, and more coordination and collaboration. The Scots like to believe they have the best NHS in the UK and I’m inclined to agree. It’s just a pity that they also have the lowest life expectancy.

Ever since the Black Report was published in 1980,2 we’ve known that the causes of ill-health are social, so it’s highly likely that the solutions are too. In most major cities, life expectancy varies by a decade between rich and poor. Such unfairness and inequality should make us angry, but it’s not an excuse for mindless looting. It’s hard to make a convincing political point about taxing the rich when you’re disappearing down a back alley with a roll of carpet and three plasma screen TVs. The things that bind us together as a civil society are nothing to do with party politics, social class, or religious belief. Our shared humanity tells us that some things are just wrong.

The stock markets have crashed, wiping a huge chunk off pensions, and the riots will result in large increases in council tax. Despite the gloom, people are still flocking to the Fringe and this year they’ve got nearly 600 comedians to choose from, and plenty of serious dramatists, offering insights and answers. Stories are metaphors for life and art is vital for our emotional health. The best comedy unites people, rather than divides, and maybe the therapy of a few hundred people all laughing together in an enclosed space is what we need when times are tough.

From an evolutionary point of view, none of this matters. Life is largely pointless and over in the blink of a geological nanosecond. There is no great purpose, no grand design, just loads of us African apes scurrying around feeling anxious and trying to make sense of it all. The best we can do in our short, brutish lives is to pleasure ourselves in a safe and sustainable way. That’s my big idea this year. And it’s selling out.

  1. The Telegraph website. Revealed: Alex Salmond’s ‘seduction’ of Rupert Murdoch. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/8682337/Revealed-Alex-Salmonds-seduction-of-Rupert-Murdoch.html
  2. Department of Health and Social Security. Inequalities in health: report of a research working group. London: DHSS, 1980.Available at: www.sochealth.co.uk/Black/black.htm G

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