Lord Ashcroft, Tory peer and billionaire, is an expert on medals for courage. He personally owns a great many Victoria Crosses, and does the medal a public service by retelling the stories of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who displayed the astonishing valour required.
This week is the 80th anniversary of the George Cross, which is roughly the non-combat version of the VC. It is open, unlike the VC, to civilians. Lord Ashcroft calls for this to be marked by awarding the medal to the National Health Service as a whole.
There are two precedents for a collective award. The first is the island of Malta, for its stoical endurance of the German siege during the Second World War. The second is the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), which well deserved it, but received it as a sort of consolation prize for being abolished following the Good Friday Agreement.
Many will think that the NHS, which has wrestled with so much during the Covid crisis, would be an ideal recipient. I would respectfully argue they are completely mistaken.
A significant part of the Covid crisis was caused, not cured, by the NHS. Because it is such a huge, lumbering bureaucracy, it is ill equipped to put patients first.
This was tacitly acknowledged by the Government with its strange slogan “Protect the NHS”. The point of a national health service is to serve the public: suddenly, this was reversed. We were told to serve it, chiefly by staying away. This has resulted in much anguish, and is beginning to result in otherwise preventable deaths from non-Covid-related illnesses such as cancer. It also led to the second-class treatment of care homes, with literally fatal results. Procurement, too, has been treated monopolistically, and has therefore been defective and slow.
It has been my misfortune to deal with NHS hospitals several times in the last six months. They are often half-empty, with little sense of urgency about putting things right. The needs of the population have taken a poor second place to the habits of bloated administration.
Everyone should sympathise with Lord Ashcroft’s desire to celebrate many of the doctors, nurses and other workers who have tried so hard, sometimes risking their lives, to help. The George Cross was founded to honour “acts of the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of great danger.” Some have performed such acts. The NHS, as a system, has not.
A cautionary tale for British politics
The mourning – mainly, but not only, among liberals – for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice who died last week, is impressive. It is good that a figure of justice should be widely known, respected, even loved in a free society. There seems little doubt that Ginsburg earned that respect. She was a learned, thoughtful and diligent judge. By the example of her own career, she improved the liberties and dignity of women.
Unfortunately, the “RBG” cult is also a symptom of something wrong with US justice, which is that it has become so political. Because, in modern times, the Supreme Court has so often claimed the right to achieve profound social change by judicial means, it has become a player in political debate. Liberals and conservatives vie with each other about appointments. Confirmation hearings become sometimes appalling partisan battlegrounds. The extreme, often personal denunciations of Donald Trump’s nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, were an example.
In the case of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her most ardent followers in recent years were ideological enemies of President Trump, rather than upholders of the rule of law. She herself made an outburst against Mr Trump, for which she subsequently apologised. As she continued on the bench, although in her mid-80s and ill with cancer, the anti-Trumpers willed her to outlast the man they hate, thus preventing him from appointing a conservative to replace her.
Every bit as crudely political as his opponents, Mr Trump wants to fill the space created by Ginsburg’s death at once, with an appointment that would please the voters he needs in November. The detachment required for real justice is sacrificed to the hustings.
We are edging the same way here. In the character and melodramatic presentation of the judgment on proroguing Parliament a year ago, Lady Hale, the then president of our Supreme Court, deliberately entered a political battle to stop Brexit. In doing so, she misunderstood the nature of Parliament and overstepped the boundary between unelected judges and elected politicians. This made her a heroine to some, a hate-figure to others: just the polarisation a judicial system does not need.
This week, now retired, she is at it again. In a new essay, she berates Parliament for surrendering its role in controlling Covid emergency laws. Personally, I sympathise with her on this point, but is this an arena she should be entering, particularly in the terms she chooses to adopt? Provocatively, she reopens the case of Dominic Cummings’s famous journey to Barnard Castle. The judicial mode of speech should always be judicious. Hers isn’t.
Until Tony Blair invented the Supreme Court, Britain had an unusual but effective system. The top judges (the “law lords”) were truly independent masters of their terrain, but were scrupulously careful not to be political actors. They were not as famous as Lady Hale, but they were fairer. Our system needs to find a way back to such fairness, not to go the way of America.