I recently received my UK National Insurance number. American friends warned me before I left what this would mean: high taxes, long waits, and terrible hospitals. Apart from the ongoing aluminum versus alumninium tiff, views on healthcare are one of the most divisive issues in the special relationship. Joking aside, I believe this difference actually reflects the much deeper matter of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
So much of a people’s character seems to involve a glorification and reenactment of formative national events: America’s finest hour was in fighting for its freedom in the late eighteenth century; Britain’s finest hour was in enduring against tyranny in the mid-twentieth century. Since those times, Americans continue to fight under the belief that they are doing so for freedom, and the British continue to endure hardship under the belief that it is toward a noble end. In times of financial difficulty, the American military budget remains sacrosanct. In Britain, it is the National Health Service that is unassailable.
Without monarchs or fascists threatening American freedoms, much of U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War has been governed by a terror of communism. The Red Menace became an emblem of assault on all that was American, conveniently giving us another opportunity to “fight for our freedom” in places like Korea and Vietnam. Substitute “terrorist” for “communist,” and the Middle East for the Pacific Rim, to bring this reenactment of our national story into modern times.
However, the result of vilifying an ideology of collective resourcing in order to continue the national myth of freedom-fighting has bred a deep and abiding mistrust in the American character of anything collectivized, including government itself. This mistrust has been played upon to great effect by ultra-wealthy private health insurance lobbies in the U.S., resulting in even minor health reforms being portrayed as an all-out assault on American freedom. And according to our mythology, in the face of assault, we always fight back. And so, in America, there is always a war–on drugs, on crime, on terror, and most recently on healthcare.
The British, meanwhile, endure an imperfect system in reenactment of a time when being stoic, and pulling together for the common good, allowed them to remain the last great light in Europe as the continent became engulfed in darkness. Modesty, frugality, cooperation and re-use have become ingrained values on this island, along with skepticism of anything that smacks idealistic. Protracted long-suffering has grown an autonomic nervous system in the culture with nearly opposite reflexes to the American ones–tap Britain on the knee, and rather than kick or fight, the knee-jerk response is to say, “sorry.”
With my first paycheck, I will see how much my collectivized healthcare costs, and with my first winter cold, I will see what it takes to get my share of being looked after for “free.” In the meantime, my National Insurance number, a string of nine alphanumeric characters, succinctly decodes the cipher of differences between two peoples separated by an ocean, a few hundred years, and two very different stories we tell ourselves about who we are.