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Michael White: A TV election debate that reminded us of the 'better angels of our nature'

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Instead of the shrill rhetoric of the hustings, we heard grown-up solutions from politicians and the gratitude of patients

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On a routine visit to my local hospital’s urology department this week I was struck, as I usually am, by the calm and cheerful efficiency of the place. Nurses, doctors – well, most of them – and admin staff worked smoothly to keep a highly diverse clientele happy and patient. The sun was even shining.

What a contrast to the angry general election campaign being waged beyond the hospital’s walls about the NHS (among other things) – threatened walls, it so happens.

When Ed Miliband talked of “weaponising” the service as an issue in private conversation with the Beeb’s Nick Robinson – he never denied it – he illustrated the nastier, negative side of electoral politics.

Alas, it often works at the price of disarming what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature”.

TV din

The urology department’s TV was on. Sound turned down but captioned, it was switched to BBC2 where the formidable Victoria Derbyshire was discussing, yes, the NHS with a 200-strong live audience in Southampton.

Only three patients were actually watching the show, which was a shame because its tone reflected the reality they were experiencing in what always – for reasons of balance – I call Charing St Guy’s.

‘Westminster faces the near-certainty of multi-party government after 7 May’

Yes, there are some delays, awful mishaps – a mother left to die after an ambulance was stood down – and frustration, but all in a broader context of admiration and affection for the NHS. 

Victoria Derbyshire is no Kilroy wind-up merchant: the studio audience of voters and GPs was thoughtful and constructive.

Even the four politicians – health minister Norman Lamb, shadow care minister Liz Kendall, GP and Tory MP Phillip Lee and UKIP’s Angus Dalgleish, a cancer consultant – had brought along the better angels of their nature. Dark angels were confined to Twitter and the Daily Mail.

Why is the disconnect so great between this urgent search for grown-up solutions and shrill party rhetoric on the hustings?

Cost conscience

It is not just elections, of course. This week the kindness that let parents donate the organs of their dying newborn got far less attention than tabloid-orchestrated rage against “establishment” officials for not prosecuting alleged child abuser, the now-senile Lord Janner.

So much for mental health reform.

I later watched some of the NHS programme on iPlayer. It was moving.

There was Alex, who lost three limbs to invasive Strep A but was worried about the (£2.5m?) cost to the NHS of restoring him to an active life and work.

And Nicola, whose prem baby was saved by five months in intensive care (£1,000 a day?).

‘Queuing for my blood test I later saw a bloke in handcuffs’

James reported that his diabetes is well treated but his mental problems barely at all.

Nigel, a GP, wanted the politicians to stop blaming each other and engage in honest debate. 

When Norman Lamb floated the Lib Dems’ “non-partisan commission” to establishment a new settlement for health and social care after the election, there was applause, although Derbyshire reminded him that Nick Clegg plays “political football” with the NHS too.

Nil points

Bracknell Tory Dr Lee, was quick to assert that he “never makes party political points” about the large areas of health policy on which the election manifestos agree: no charges, greater priority for mental health, more money but also the need to address rising demand – a point he kept stressing.

It’s not just rising numbers, it’s also attitude. He’s right. Liz Kendall dared say we must all take better care of ourselves.

Since Westminster faces the near-certainty of multi-party government after 7 May, might this be an opportunity to focus on long-term challenges most people’s better angels recognise? I don’t want to sound naive.

Queuing for my blood test I later saw a bloke in handcuffs.

Michael White writes about politics for the Guardian

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