Bruce Kent: As I please

IssueAugust - September 2018
Comment by Bruce Kent

What I was doing on 5 July 1948 I can’t remember. Marching up and down on parade in Aldershot I imagine, as a national service conscript.

I certainly did not notice that on 5 July 1948 something remarkable happened. Health minister Aneurin Bevan, in a Manchester hospital, launched the National Health Service. A very progressive step forward for the country. Bevan’s announcement came only a few months before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, agreed in December 1948 by the general assembly of the United Nations. Article 25 of that declaration says, among other things, that ‘Everyone has the right to... medical care and necessary social services....’

My own NHS experience has been both positive and enlightening. My one serious spell in hospital was an eye-opener. In a ward with six other men of different ages, problems, backgrounds and nationalities, one soon realises what it means to be a global citizen. The more so since those giving such efficient and kindly care also came from across the world.

But why am I going on about the NHS, of which you have heard a lot in recent days? Just because half of what I hear from press comment is along the lines of ‘how can we afford such a universal service?’ ‘The NHS budget needs expanding, costs are rising, we have not got the money’ and so on and so on. The influence of commercial corporations on NHS contracts gets stronger and stronger.

Why, I wonder, are people not making the obvious connection with the massive expenditure – at least £205 billion – that it is going to cost to build and run a new set of nuclear-armed submarines? My local paper, which carries a lot of pro-NHS letters, is strangely silent on the Trident replacement issue. It may be that the nationalism expressed fiercely by Ernest Bevin when he swung a Downing Street meeting in favour of having our own British nuclear weapons is still all too alive and well.

There are many persuasive points to be made.

Preparing for, and being willing to commit, mass murder ought to cause moral problems. One does not need a PhD to understand that since we have to borrow the missiles for our nuclear warheads from the United States we can hardly claim to have an ‘independent’ weapon. Nor is it difficult to make the point that terrorists who get hold of nuclear weapons cannot be deterred if they do not have a country against which we can threaten to retaliate. Still less can we deter the suicidal.

The long list of nuclear weapon accidents and misunderstandings which could so easily have led to a disastrous nuclear exchange is not well enough known. If I had a Nobel Peace Prize to hand out it would go Stanislaus Petrov, the Soviet officer who in 1983 refused to risk a nuclear war by telling his superiors that what looked like a NATO nuclear attack was on the way. It was Robert McNamara, former US secretary for defense, who, towards the end of his life, said we were saved from nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War not by our diplomatic skills but by ‘good luck’. Such luck can run out!

This is a good time to redouble our efforts. A perfectly good nuclear weapon abolition treaty, agreed in 2017 by 122 states, is in place. This country with its ludicrous, very expensive and non-independent weapon system is ideally placed to be the first nuclear weapon state to break ranks and sign up. Were we to do so, worries about NHS funding would soon cease.

Topics: Nuclear weapons
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