Taking the National(ism) out of the National Health Service: re-locating agency to amongst ourselves

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Campaigns against the privatisation of healthcare in the UK have often focused on saving, or preserving, the post-war National Health Service (NHS) of the 1950s. They talk of it as a ‘national treasure’, which has long given the UK some moral high ground over countries such as the United States. I argue that seductively simplified campaign slogans can also be blunt–they can carry with them more opaque messages such as those that encourage the maintenance of a patriarchal healthcare system. As a result, campaigns to save the NHS of the 1950s also preserve the nationalism, as well as the class and gendered staffing hierarchies, which (as I illustrate) come to reproduce inequalities in the care that is delivered. Through a multi-cited ethnography focused on the delivery of hip replacements in the NHS, I argue that a more complex form of political activism is needed to bring about the equality in healthcare that the NHS promises. In this paper, I flatten assumed hierarchies of power, to highlight some ethnographic examples of how everyday actions can come to reshape antiquated power structures. I conclude by suggesting we look to how power is pieced together across networks–and how we can re-locate collective agency to within and amongst ourselves to bring about a more equal, and less nationalistic, healthcare service.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-143
Number of pages10
JournalCritical Public Health
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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