Last week Labour pledged to deliver free fibreoptic broadband for all, paid for by a tax on tech giants, and implemented through the partial renationalisation of BT. Neil McRae, BT’s chief network architect, decried the plan as “broadband communism”. Boris Johnson weighed in to call the scheme “crackpot communism”. And most worryingly of all, Krishnan Guru-Murthy queried free broadband provision on the basis that he’s “happily paying for it right now”. I’d gently suggest that the Channel 4 News presenter’s income has had some impact on his definition of happiness being very different to mine.
Decommodification – where something we need stops being delivered at the whim of the market and becomes a social entitlement – has always been politically controversial. For students of history (or simply those equipped with a search engine and time to spare), the hysteria greeting John McDonnell’s announcement was a familiar ditty. The launch of the National Health Service in 1948, one of the world’s foremost examples of something being decommodified in the interest of the social good, was met with nothing less than horror by those with vested interests in the private provision of medicine.
Sir Bernard Docker, who sat at the top of private firms Daimler, British Small Arms and Westminster Hospital, and was chairman of the British Hospitals Association, denounced the National Health Service bill as a “mechanism in which the patient will get caught and mangled”, and predicted that the decommodification of heathcare would result in the “mass murder of hospitals”. Led by Charles Hill, secretary of the British Medical Association and the soothing voice of the BBC’s wartime show Radio Doctor, a reported 89% of doctors opposed the government’s plan to bring them into the public sector.
Conservatives took up the hue and cry. David Eccles, the Tory MP for Chippenham, said that the in-housing of medical practitioners was tantamount to an assault on “liberty and order”. Labour’s health minister Nye Bevan was singled out as behaving like “a dictator”, in a riff that was picked up by the rightwing press at the time. The Daily Sketch, a Conservative-supporting tabloid, lost its mind entirely: “The state medical service is part of the socialist plot to convert Great Britain into a National Socialist economy. The doctors’ stand is the first effective revolt of the professional classes against socialist tyranny. There is nothing that Bevan or any other socialist can do about it in the shape of Hitlerian coercion.”
Bevan credited the health service’s immediate popularity to his opponents’ scaremongering: the attacks led to a clamour for treatment in its early months, as patients feared that free care would soon be taken away. But it wasn’t just reliance on the NHS that turned it into one of the UK’s most beloved institutions – pop culture helped. As well as the government’s own propaganda blitz of public information films, movies such as White Corridors and the Carry On … series cemented the NHS as a national treasure.
The idea of the NHS took root in the political imagination less as an example of social entitlement’s victory over private provision, and more as the embodiment of brand Britain. Reducing it to angelic ward sisters and children in pyjamas is probably how we ended up with David Cameron smiling beatifically as 600 nurses twirled on trolleys at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony – all while overseeing a real-terms funding cut of £25m. Though treatment has remained free at the point of use, the NHS has seen the profitable bits of its operation commodified and sold off to private contractors and equity firms. Here’s the problem with downplaying the radical nature of decommodification: when you empty something of political content, politicians are free to wield symbols as they please.
Understandably, Labour is emphasising the commonsense credentials of its plans to decommodify fibreoptic broadband and make it free at the point of use. BT effectively has a monopoly on broadband infrastructure, and the profit motive has provided an incentive not to invest in a rollout of fibreoptic broadband to rural areas. UK premises’ fibre-optic connectivity is knocking around the doldrums of 8% to 10%, in contrast to the dizzying heights of South Korea’s 98%. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business, energy and industrial strategy minister, laughed off suggestions that free internet is the equivalent of “broadband communism”, and insisted that it’s just “economic sense” for the state to provide the fibre-optic network. I suppose it doesn’t pay to celebrate the Marxist undertones of a flagship policy during a general election.
But make no mistake: the proposal is radical – and ideological. As was Margaret Thatcher’s decision to stop BT from rolling out fibre infrastructure in 1990 because of her rigid belief that the private sector should be the sole driver of progress in the UK. The idea that the market is at all involved in regulating our access to the things we need to survive and prosper – whether it’s housing, education or, in the modern world, broadband – is itself a radical and ideological imposition. What else would you call the insistence that society prioritises the right to privately own an empty property over the right not to die homeless on the streets?
This is the core difference between a McDonnell spending pledge and one from the chancellor, Sajid Javid. It’s not simply that Labour is outgunning the Conservatives on tax-and-spend or borrow-to-invest: its goal is to fundamentally transform the relationship between wages and the means of survival. It says something about British political culture that we had to defang the radical nature of the NHS in order to integrate it into our national story. But perhaps it’s time to remember just how unreasonable free healthcare sounded when it was proposed, and apply that paradigm-exploding logic to every sphere of public life. As Margaret Thatcher once put it: “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.”
• Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media