Do you, like me, subscribe to the view that Britain’s Conservatives are an unscrupulous lot, forever searching for new ways to make the rich even richer? With this in mind, and in spite of the absence of documentary proof, it strikes me that the intensely bitter dispute between junior doctors in Britain and the Tories’ secretary of state for health, Jeremy Hunt, is about more than just pay.
Of course, the young medical practitioners are refusing to accept the imposition of a reduction in their terms and conditions, and they are entitled to do so. However, the depth of intransigence displayed by the Tory minister, with uncritical support from his cabinet colleagues, suggests that Thatcher’s heirs have more in mind than merely trimming the health budget. It appears that they intend inflicting a strategic defeat on this crucial sector of state employees similar to the one their heroine meted out to the National Union of Mineworkers thirty years ago.
As with that epic struggle during Thatcher’s premiership, defeating and demoralising the junior doctors would now have a ripple-out effect, not only throughout the National Health Service but also among all public-sector professionals and beyond.
In a general way, this attack on the doctors may be defined as part of the continuing process of proletarianisation of the middle class. More specifically, though, we are witnessing capitalism making preparations for the next phase of its neo-liberal onslaught. The grand strategy is to further weaken working-class organisation through a series of one-sided trade deals and specifically, in this case, by the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
In Britain, as in Ireland, TTIP has yet to receive the necessary and widespread public attention and opposition that it is getting, for example, in Germany. In spite of this weak response there is measurable concern in significant sections of British society about TTIP’s detrimental implications for the health service.
Right-wing elements advocating the agreement have dismissed these concerns, telling the public that the health service will be exempt from TTIP’s remit. However, legal advice provided to Unite suggests otherwise.* The report states that so-called protections do not appertain to the NHS, “because of the competitive co-existence of public and private providers in the NHS as well as the private funding and commercial activities of NHS Foundation Trusts.”
If this legal opinion is correct—and there is no reason to question its accuracy—the potential for industrial unrest and further strike action among workers in the health service will grow rapidly. In this light, the campaign by the Conservatives’ capitalist aristocracy to confront and break the junior doctors (the group of health-service workers with most leverage) can be seen as a pre-emptive strike.
Ironically, the Tories appear to have a greater appreciation of the power of organised labour than some leading British (and Irish) trade unionists, who argue that the European Union is protective of workers’ rights, when in effect it is that very institution that is at present facilitating the drafting and eventual implementation of this profoundly neo-liberal trade deal.
Let’s be clear about one thing. This battle being fought by the doctors in Britain is of real significance for those of us who live in the Republic of Ireland. After all, it is intended that TTIP will apply to all regions within the EU; and moreover, the global neo-liberal agenda does not bypass Ireland. Don’t ignore the fact either that this treaty is not confined to health services: its provisions will facilitate the undermining of legislation protecting workers’ rights, will diminish food safety regulations, and will encourage still more cowboy banking practices—and that’s far from a comprehensive list of its negative impact.
It’s obvious that if we are to prevent the imposition of this damaging trade agreement there is an urgent need to promote and organise for mass political action. Nobody can doubt that, had it not been for the huge demonstrations on the streets, the water tax (and at the significantly higher original rate too) would now be in operation and would be as permanent as VAT.
Something that must be emphasised is that water tax is as much a part of the neo-liberal agenda as is TTIP and the cynical attempt to crush the spirit of junior doctors in Britain. It is important that these right-wing initiatives be resisted. It is equally important, nevertheless, that the opposition to these attacks is coherent and unified and all the while promoting a realisation that the long-term, permanent solution lies in constructing a socialist order, rather than dealing with each neo-liberal assault as a single and isolated issue.
In spite of the obvious urgency demanding that such a movement be constructed, obstacles remain. The biggest difficulty facing progress is the old problem of a proliferation of claims and ideas about how to go about creating that necessary movement. A great deal of honest reflection, frank discussion, fraternal debate and even negotiation has to take place in order to create the necessary vehicle.
For example, we need to persuade the trade union movement that the organised and mobilised working class, rather than EU legislation, is the best protection workers have. There is also a need to understand both the lure and the limitations of purely electoral strategies and overcome the divisiveness engendered by such policies. Finally, we must root out the political sectarianism that places party advantage above that of the workers. With apologies to Messrs Marx and Engels, it is worth repeating that such a movement should have no interests separate and apart from those of working people as a whole.
The Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum is exploring means and methods to help bring this about and is happy to hear from all those interested in building a mass movement capable ultimately of establishing a workers’ republic. The forum will be holding a number of events throughout the country later this year in order to advance this process and project, and further information will be provided as details emerge.
*Dr Kyriaki-Korina Raptopoulou, “The Legal Implications for the NHS of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.”