It would be fair to assume that any Edinburgh show about the NHS might be driven by a sense of British exceptionalism. Praise lavished on this noble and unique institution which has come to define the core values of a society, a badge which the British can wear with pride the world over.
Mark Thomas has a strong following in Edinburgh, and even they might have expected that. Most of that following are presumably left-leaning, and politically engaged like he is. And most, presumably, aren’t quite capable of exposing arms dealers, and D-locking themselves under cars at political rallies like he does.
I count myself in that group. His shows are more often than not, a rallying cry, which not only stick it to the man, but also allow us to live vicariously through the extraordinary commitment he displays in doing the sticking.
He knows that’s why we come. Because we’re too afraid, or unwilling, or unable to go to the front line ourselves. Its something he laughs about in the show. He pokes fun at Radio 4 listeners, and aside from a sly dig at Clare Balding, which divides the room (I won’t have a word said against her), he acknowledges that politically, he is preaching to the converted.
That is until he accuses us, his loyal followers, fellow lefties, of British exceptionalism. All of us are guilty of mythologising the NHS, he says. Proselytising about its successes without the statistics to back it up.
He concedes that it is this sense of faith to the cause, that keeps the thing going at all. If the nurses, and doctors, and surgeons, and GPs didn’t believe in the idea of a public health system which is free at the point of use, then it wouldn’t work in the first place.
But according to the testimony that Thomas presents in his show, the cost of this prized healthcare system has risen sharply in the seventy years since the NHS started, and our taxes haven’t risen high enough to meet it. Its failing. And, blinkered as we are, we still think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.
Its not enough, he says, to ringfence an extra penny in every pound for the services we all benefit from. The contributing factors to health also need to be addressed – housing, employment. Our contribution needs to rise now, and every year from here on out.
The show is an indictment of all of us, who are complacent about the true state of the brilliant but beleaguered NHS. And he doesn’t sugar the pill. Yes there are anecdotes but this isn’t an episode of 24 Hours in A&E. In fact, it is a considerable achievement not to lean on any sentimentality whatsoever. Thomas clearly understands this complex problem for what it is, and manages to serve it to us in the space of an hour of stage time with crystal clarity, pragmatism, and without a hint of exceptionalism.
Check Up: Our NHS at 70 is on at Traverse Theatre until 26th August 2018. Click here for more details.