The NHS has done more for British racial integration than many realise

1:20 pm - July 5th 2013

by Sunder Katwala    

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I am a child of the NHS, which celebrates its 65th birthday this week [Friday]. I took my first breath in an NHS hospital, like many millions of Britons. And, if it hadn’t been for the NHS, I wouldn’t have come to exist at all.

I was born British, in a Yorkshire hospital, in the spring of 1974. Thirty years earlier, my parents had been born some 4,000 miles apart. It was the NHS that brought them both to Britain.

When my dad was born in Baroda, India, not so far away from Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace, he too was a British subject, for this was three years before Indian independence. Having become an Indian citizen before his fourth birthday, he has now come full circle and is British again.

After studying at medical school, and working for a summer as a doctor on the Indian Railways, he came over to England, 45 years ago, to work for the NHS. County Cork in Ireland was certainly not British by the time my mother was born there in the late-1940s. But she did not need, or have, a passport to take the ferry from Cork to Holyhead, with a one-way ticket, then a coach south to Portsmouth, to begin her training as a nurse.

Their two journeys, among millions of others, reflect part of the story of how the NHS reaches its 65th birthday having secured its status as Britain’s most cherished public institution. It ranks ahead of even the Army, the Monarchy and the Olympic team as a source of pride in being British, and the public selected its birthday as more popular than the Coronation as the 2013 anniversary that means most to people.

And there is also a clear public recognition that Britain’s most popular institution has depended upon immigration. ICM’s new polling for British Future found that most people agree that the NHS would not survive in its current form without foreign doctors and nurses, with only 20% opposition to that statement.

Despite broader public anxieties about immigration, its contribution in providing skills that the NHS needs is widely valued as being in our national interest. This makes the NHS a positive symbol of integration, as much as of integration. Those who came to this country from overseas have contributed to something which we all value and use.

It was one of the first workplaces in Britain to have a significant level of diversity (partly reflecting more widespread discrimination in jobs outside the public sector). So it also helped to forge some of the earliest mixed race relationships in post-war Britain, in the decades before that became an unexceptional norm.

When my parents met around 1970, most people said they would be worried if their children wanted to marry across ethnic lines. But whenever I bump into somebody West Indian-Irish or Indian-Scots, I find that there is a good chance that the NHS figures somewhere in the family story of how their parents met. ??

As a parent of young children myself, I cannot imagine not being able to rely on high quality care that is free at the point of use. Taking my five-year-old on the adventure of a short drive in the dark to see the “night doctor” out-of-hours sparked many questions from him – How did the doctor manage to stay awake, did they have to sleep in the morning – but it also provided me with the answer that all parents want to hear: he’ll be fine.

His generation of children of the NHS may well face some difficult decisions about this much-loved institution in their lifetime but, as it celebrates this milestone birthday, let’s reflect on how much it has contributed to modern British life.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Health ,Race relations

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Reader comments

1. Baton Rouge

It would have been exceptionally churlish of us to have stolen the best and brightest from the old empire to wipe our arses and then to have treated them with racialist contempt. Still I suppose there is the odd one who’ll be thinking racially insensitive thoughts as a caring young woman once of the Carribbean or indeed her UK born daughter or grand daughter carefully changes the dressing on their heart transplant wound.

Among my friends of similar antiquity, there is a strong consensus, based on experience across various hospitals, that Filipinos make the best nurses. There is also a consensus about who make the worst but I dare not post that.

And the NHS is still doing loads for racial integration by employing loads of foreign doctors and nurses because British education is failing and British young people prefer the dole to hard work. /troll

The entry requirements to get into medical school are notoriously tough so any school-lever attaining those demanding grades usually has a wide choice of other degree courses.

Those other degree courses might not lead to as remunerative career as medicine – apart from banking, working in hedge funds or professional football, of course – but the working hours and working conditions will be more congenial. How many graduates from medical schools subsequently choose to work in non-medical professions?

There is likely to be an increase in foreign nurses and a sharp decrease in British nurses following the change to nurse training, which has become a degree course. Instead of bursaries, student nurses now have to pay tuition fees and only those from very low income families can get means-tested funding.

immagine training our own kids to be doctors and health professionals. Crazy – best to import doctors from africa who dont know what penicillin is. A few more surf science courses are whats needed – free of course.

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