Ward photo Yuya Tamai, scissors photo Saltanat ebli, both Creative Commons, composite by James Ivens

Ward photo Yuya Tamai, scissors photo Saltanat ebli, both Creative Commons, composite by James Ivens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Tom Barker

The future of the NHS has emerged as a key battleground in the debate surrounding Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union (EU).

Labour MPs like Alan Johnson have said leaving the EU would risk “frightening consequences for staffing, waiting times and levels of service care”.

At the same time, right-wing campaigners for Brexit argue that leaving could secure the health service by reducing immigration from Europe.

Both camps rely on fearmongering rather than a sober assessment of the facts. They attempt to hide the class interests of the establishment politicians involved.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage has said continued membership in the EU would “allow giant American corporations to bid for contracts within the National Health Service… There are many people that fear that this could be the privatisation of the National Health Service through the back door.”

But the former commodities broker’s real interests are quite different. On his 2012 ‘Common Sense’ tour, Farage announced:

“I think we’re going to have to think about healthcare very, very differently. I think we are going to have to move to an insurance-based system of healthcare.”

Douglas Carswell, the lone Ukip MP, has campaigned continuously for an “open market” in healthcare contracts. Right wingers also put about the lie that immigration is responsible for strain on the NHS – rather than their cuts to funding and staffing.


Establishment Brexit campaign group Vote Leave is backed by Justice Secretary Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson. One spokesperson said: “If we vote Leave we can stop handing over £350 million a week to the EU and can instead spend our money on our priorities like the NHS.”

Yet in 2005, Gove co-authored a book entitled ‘Direct democracy: an agenda for a new model party’. This states unequivocally:

“Our ambition should be to break down the barriers between private and public provision, in effect denationalising the provision of healthcare in Britain.”

Gove, with current health secretary and bane of junior doctors Jeremy Hunt, backed the pro-privatisation Health and Social Care Act 2012.

Many people are rightly repulsed by anti-immigrant, right-wing Euroscepticism. But we need to ask ourselves why the majority of establishment politicians, business leaders and big corporations have lined up to back the EU.

The piecemeal sale of the NHS is nothing new. The so-called Private Finance Initiative (PFI) introduced under Tory John Major accelerated sell-offs of the public sector. Tony Blair’s New Labour expanded PFI into the NHS.

Blair is also unambiguous on the EU referendum, stating it is Britain’s “destiny to lead in Europe”. With characteristic charm, Blair has even said the public cannot be trusted to make the “sensible choice” – to stay inside the bosses’ EU.

And the Blairite ex-health ministers calling for a vote to remain are in the main beneficiaries of large salaries from the private health sector.

Sir Richard Branson is the billionaire owner of private health firm Virgin Care. He too has spoken out against Brexit, warning that “it would be a very, very, very, very sad day if British people voted to leave”.

Since entering the health market in 2010, Virgin has gathered over £1 billion worth of contracts within the NHS. Most recently, Virgin won a £126 million contract to take over four hospitals in Kent. Unsurprisingly, this deal was pushed through by – drum roll – Jeremy Hunt.

The Confederation of British Industry, which represents Britain’s top bosses, backs EU membership and supported the Health and Social Care Act.

If Branson wants to stay in the EU, it is certainly not for the love of a publicly owned health service.

The reason for privatisers’ support for the EU is simple. It is because of the EU’s unwavering commitment to privatisation, written into every one of its undemocratic treaties and institutions, which the European Parliament has no power to overrule.

One of the bosses’ latest tools in the process of privatisation is the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).


TTIP is a multibillion-dollar agreement between the United States and the EU which allows corporations to overturn government decisions when their profits have been affected by state intervention or public ownership. This is just the latest manifestation of the EU’s founding purpose: assisting the capitalist class in maximising profits and resisting public ownership.

Voting to leave would set TTIP back and cause disarray in the pro-privatisation EU and British capitalist establishment.

Whether or not we stay in the EU, British workers will be faced with austerity. The same is true for the rest of Europe.

The only thing that can reliably defend against NHS privatisation is mass trade union and political action against the capitalists. Positive reforms for the living conditions of the working class, such as the NHS, have been won, without exception, by such action.

What few and insufficient protections the EU does provide are also the result of such action. Voting to back the EU will only bolster the capitalist forces seeking to remove even these protections, both in Brussels and Westminster.

For many, the vote will provide a stick with which to beat the establishment parties. Brexit would almost certainly lead to the downfall of David Cameron and, possibly, to a snap general election.

The Socialist Party is calling for a vote to leave the EU. But in or out, the future of the NHS depends on whether, as Nye Bevan once said, “there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.”

  • Read more socialist arguments for voting Leave at socialistcase4exit.eu