We Need The NHS, So Why Didn't More Of Us March For It This Weekend?
The Debrief: Saturday’s march had a strong and impressive turnout, but in comparison to last month's Women's March, it was hard not to notice the sheer proportion of people over 50.
A white-haired man in a red t-shirt with ‘I Still Hate Margaret Thatcher’ stretched across his chest chats to my mother; a woman who started nursing 60 years ago strides up to me, a placard stuffed down behind her rucksack, to discuss the junior doctors’ strike; an elderly lady with a cross-stitch placard proclaiming NHS Not For Sale stands before Parliament Square. Last Saturday’s march in defence of the NHS - in the face of crippling Tory cuts, hospital closures and privatisation - was a heart-warming affair. I marched past the house of famous suffragist Millicent Fawcett, I saw women breastfeeding their babies beside pro-NHS banners, I listened to rousing speeches from doctors, health workers and members of One Day Without Us - the campaign to recognise the contribution of immigrants who work in UK public services. But there was just one tiny bubble in the syringe - the disproportionately low numbers of young people. We were, after all, marching right by many of UCL’s student halls of residence; we saw thousands of young, engaged and enraged women at last month’s Women’s March past the American Embassy; social media is awash with woke young women speaking out against injustice. But, while Saturday’s march had a strong and impressive turnout, it was hard not to notice the sheer proportion of people over 50.
Of course, people in their middle and later years are more likely to be users of the NHS and therefore may be moved to campaign more vocally in favour of it. Perhaps the rally didn’t get quite the social media uptake that the anti-Trump campaign can manage. Perhaps the number of young women joining trade unions - who always play a very strong role in the organising of pro-public service protests - is disproportionately low. Perhaps, as one friend joked, all those elderly Leave voters are now doing their bit to try and improve their reputation. Or perhaps, most cynically, most unpleasantly of all, the political mobilisation of young women hasn’t been as significant or as lasting as I’d hoped.
'I was sure that this would be the one thing that the whole country could get behind,' a young woman with a razor sharp black bob and bright, matt lipstick the colour of hubba bubba tells me, sipping from a takeaway cup of coffee and marching towards the bright, spring sun. It’s a fair assumption. If there is one thing that binds the people of Britain together - young, old, men, women, children, black, white, Asian, European, poor, middle class, healthy, ill, well-educated, illiterate, Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, Green, fat, thin, trans, gay, straight and glorious - it is the NHS. Both as staff and as patients. 'One thing I know - we’d all be fucking screwed without it,' she adds. 'Regardless of income and background, we can now access the best health service, with the most devoted staff, who don’t do it for money - god knows salaries are low enough for nurses and people already - but out of compassion.'
Like her, I was amazed to think that there were women I knew - many of whom use the NHS regularly - who didn’t bother to turn up on Saturday. Women who get free contraception on the NHS, women who get antibiotics from the NHS, women who have had babies thanks to the NHS, women who were born into the NHS and would like to die within the NHS, women who have been to A&E, women who have broken bones and had smear tests, women who have suffered panic attacks or mysterious rashes, women who even hope to work one day in the NHS. Where were they?
There were, of course, young women there. Many of whom work within the NHS. The point is, rather, that there were disproportionately fewer young women than there should have been, compared to the population as a whole. One young mental health nurse I met, called Emily Britton, told me that lots of students from Kings, where she studied, were on the march that day. She was surrounded by a group of young men and women holding brilliant hand-made banners with slogans like ‘As Strong As A Nurse’ and ‘We Are Your Future’. 'My brother’s a young graphic designer so we had a workshop for nurses to come and make protest banners,' she told me. I certainly know of many young women who have called on the mental health services of the NHS over the last few years - many of whom turned up to show support for the staff who keep in going, in the face of swinging government funding cuts, despite Theresa May’s recent rhetoric.
There were, of course, some excellent banners: 'Midwives At Your Cervix… But For How Long'; 'You Can’t Privatise Humanity'; 'The Blood On My Hands Washes Off'; 'The NHS Is Our Baby'; and that wonderful quote from the health minister who helped found the NHS Nye Bevan: 'The NHS Will Last As Long As There Are Folk Left With The Faith To Fight For It'. For my part, I’d spent much of the previous day sewing fabric letters onto my old shower curtain to make a banner that read 'From Cradle To Grave And Not For Sale'. Which, sadly, got cropped in my only photo to make it look like From Cradle To Gravy. No matter. There were also great chants, of course. Many of them led by the doctor and campaigner Dr Philip Hammond: ‘It's Our NHS Keep Your Hands Off It, It's Not For Sale And it's Not for Profit'; ‘Our NHS It’s Not For Merging, Keep It Public, Kick Out Virgin’; ‘The NHS Isn’t Overspent, It’s Underfunded By 20 Percent’.
As we squashed together in Tavistock Square at the start of the march, I bumped into a young woman, Laura, with a sticker on each cheek, marshalling representatives from the British Medical Association into position. Why, I asked, had she come out to protest? 'It’s time that people realised that it’s a complete false economy to cut the NHS when people’s health are going to suffer,' said Laura, her voice steady but touched by emotion. 'I’m working in sexual health at the moment. I work in Croydon, which is a relatively poor area, and Croydon Hospital has done really well in dealing with being in special measures. But this is just the beginning and it’s going to get much worse over the next couple of years. I never want to work in a health system that’s not national. I’m very scared that I’ll get to a point where I have to start asking patients if they can afford this care and that’s just appalling.'
For many of us at the march, this felt like a breaking point. Our last chance to fight for a free, publicly-owned National Health Service that treated people according to their need, not their economic means. It’s easy to say - many people there were saying it - that the Tory government is intentionally crippling the NHS with funding cuts, economy drives, restructuring, unachievable demands and the destruction of interconnected social services in order to write it off and then sell it off to private investors.
It was rousing, heartening and galvanising to see so many people taking to the streets to protest. But, if the NHS is to be saved, we’re all going to have to play our part. We know that millions of young women across the country rely on the NHS - it’s now time they started fighting for it.
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