Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
The book When Prophecy Fails, first published in 1955, is about the psychology of Millenarian cults, formed around the belief that the end of days is just around the corner. More precisely, it is about how the members of such a cult react when the date of the predicted apocalypse comes and goes, and nothing special happens. How do those people respond to the total, unambiguous and undeniable refutation of their belief system?
A period of confusion and disorientation? Some honest soul-searching and self-examination? Shame and embarrassment? Do they turn on the cult leaders? Does the cult disintegrate?
The answer is: none of the above. The most common response is to double down. The cult members modify their story somewhat, and shift the date of their prophecy into the future. Far from feeling any sense of embarrassment, the cult develops a greater missionary zeal. Far from falling apart, it emerges stronger, and more cohesive.
Britain has its very own version of such a cult. It is built around the belief that there is a secret plan to dismantle the National Health Service, sell off its components, and replace it with a dystopian survival-of-the-fittest system, in which we will live in constant fear of being bankrupted by medical bills.
There are currently dozens of competing petitions, which have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures, claiming that the latest health reform – the Health and Care Bill – is really a Trojan Horse for the privatisation of the NHS. But this is, of course, not the first moral panic of its kind. Three years ago, the envisaged UK-US trade deal was denounced as a Trojan Horse for selling sell the NHS to American healthcare corporations. More than 1.4 million people signed a petition to avert this imaginary threat, and according to one survey, nearly 60% of the public fell for it.
During the Cameron years, there was a large-scale moral panic around the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which campaigners believed to be – you guessed it – a Trojan Horse for the privatisation of the NHS. Several books were written about how the HSCA would kill off the NHS, with self-explanatory titles such as The Plot Against the NHS (2011), NHS SOS: How the NHS was betrayed and how we can save it (2013), NHS for Sale: Myths, Lies and Deception (2015), and How to Dismantle the NHS in 10 Easy Steps (2015). On the day the HSCA came into effect, socialist author Owen Jones wrote in his usual measured, level-headed style:
“[S]pare a moment for our National Health Service. Time of death: midnight, 1st April 2013. Cause of death: murder. […] The great sell-off of our NHS is already well under way. […] The NHS has been killed, murdered, assassinated by a Tory government.”
In Gordon Brown’s days, a reorganisation of primary care was supposed to act as a Trojan Horse for the privatisation of the health service. As the Independent reported at the time:
“GPs […] are set to pass a vote of no confidence in proposed health reforms which they claim will result in NHS privatisation. […]
The British Medical Association will deliver a […] petition, with tens of thousands of names, to Downing Street”
I could go on. In fact, I do go on, namely in my new IEA report Repeat Prescription? The NHS and four decades of privatisation paranoia, in which I document the very long succession of such supposed “Trojan Horses”. Going back to at least the early Thatcher days, every major and every minor health reform has been greeted by someone or other as a “Trojan Horse”, which allegedly contained a secret plan to dismantle the NHS. Needless to say, none of these Trojan Horses have ever contained anything – but that has never stopped the privatisation prophets from simply creating a new moral panic a few years later, pushing the date of the NHS’s predicted demise into the future.
Folk wisdom has it that if you “cry wolf” too many times, people will eventually stop taking you seriously. At least in this instance, that folk wisdom could not be more wrong. When it comes to conspiracy theories about NHS privatisation, crying wolf works every single time. Large sections of the broadcast and print media can be relied upon to provide the wolf-criers with megaphones. The medical establishment, in the form of the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, jump on the bandwagon more often than not, and so do the trade unions and frontbench opposition politicians.
One of the problems with this charade is that the ensuing hysteria then crowds out any sensible discussion about the pros and cons of the actual reform. If you go through old news archives about previous health reforms, you will find plenty of hysterical denunciations and angry denials, but you will learn very little about what those reforms were actually about.
Conspiracy theories about NHS “privatisation” are the failed prophecy that never dies. We need to start calling out the failed prophets on the 0 per cent success rate of their prophecies.