Jonathan Eida | Opinion
Sociologists, as far back as Emile Durkheim in the late eighteen hundreds, wrote extensively about the benefits of the “collective consciousness”. The idea of the “collective consciousness” is that society, in order to function, must hold shared ideas in order to maintain stability and unity. Often, the point of unity is something that is seen as far bigger than any one person by themselves. Durkheim used the religion of the Australian Arunta tribe as the case study for his theory. The Arunta tribe had many religious customs centred around a totem pole. The totem pole and the customs surrounding it were what would keep the tribe a cohesive unit. Durkheim labelled this phenomenon “Totemism”.
This theory has been adapted to the modern age, and is widely branded as “civic religion”. Each society, in line with this theory, must have this focal point to rally around if it is to function. The late Sir Roger Scruton popularised the idea of needing the “first person plural” in order to unite a collective. To quote: “People settle by acquiring a first-person plural – a place, a community and a way of life that is ‘ours’”.
In order to achieve this, however, a collective must have a shared value or idea to form around. This could come either in the form of shared, personal experiences or as an alternative, an over-arching structure. In essence, this is the idea of “Totemism” expressing itself again.
Across the pond in America, their ‘first person plural’ comes in the form of their founding documents and specifically their Constitution. In America, the Bible and the Constitution, it seems, are almost given equal standing, such is the importance of their document. More than the document itself, the values it espouses give America an identity and a shared interest to gather around. Principles around rights, values and individualism are what defines it as a country and give it its identity. As long as these fundamental principles are not uprooted, then America will remain united. Although, having said this, America’s radical Left threatens these societal bonds and may lead to problems down the line. However, for now the principles of the Constitution carry her through.
For Britain and its host nations, as per the rest of the European countries, their “first person plural” always lay with historic and cultural bonds. For further detail of how culture and history performed this role, I would recommend a read of Roger Scruton’s book “England: An elegy”, which I found very insightful.
However, globalisation and cultural shifts have meant that this is no longer a reality. The result of these changes is that we were left with weak social bonds, with a vulnerability to civil breakdown especially during times of crisis.
There has been a recent, subtle attempt to install an American-style value system in Britain as a replacement for culture. It has been aptly named “British values”. This has been included in the school curriculum for a while at this point. Its only effect has been an added check box for schools’ Ofsted ratings, while doing nothing for national cohesion. It is hardly surprising, considering we are so divided as a society, that coming up with shared values is a nearly impossible task to achieve. Freedom of speech, for example, only applies to those left of Jeremy Corbyn, freedom of religion is all well and good until you want to educate your children as you see fit in school and as for tolerance of others, this gives everyone the right to hate each other, so long as one doesn’t commit physical acts of aggression towards them. Very unifying indeed!
However, in light of our recent Covid situation, I believe we may have a new unifying symbol that has united people more than anything else in post-war Britain: the National Health Service. With a lack of any other unifying ideas, it would seem that the NHS has become the default for that role.
There are several ways in which it has been shown that the NHS is acting as the symbol of the nation. Some ways have been a long time in the making, whilst others are unique to our Coronavirus age, and although the circumstances are unique, it does exemplify in what light we regard it.
According to a poll conducted by Mintel’s flagship lifestyles report in June 2018, the NHS topped the chart when the public was asked which institution the British people had the most pride in. Over half (54%) of the public listed the health service in their list. Above, I mentioned the significance of British history in terms of its role in the collective consciousness. However, according to Mintel’s poll, British history garnered only 38%, which if it were still a key component of the collective consciousness would be very worrying. The Armed Forces came in with 34% and even the Royal Family only got 28%. This is a very insightful study into how strong and widely spread the support for our health service is, and gives a backdrop for how unifying an institution it can be.
Following on from this, in testament to the NHS’s widespread reverence in our country, is the fact our method of healthcare is not up for debate in this same way as in other countries. There are many different healthcare systems around the world, and one would have expected that some discussion over which system is preferable would occur. In the US, for example, their healthcare debate is one of the biggest areas of conflict between the two parties. However, in the UK, if one dared to use the ”P”-word (privatisation) in the same sentence as the National Health Service, one would be thrown out of the public discourse. The untouchable shield with which we guard the NHS does seem to suggest a more religious aspect to the way we view our health service compared to other countries.
I also see similarities to how we talk about the NHS compared to the way the Army was spoken about during the two World Wars. The slogan used by the Government during this crisis has been “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” When compared to slogans used during the Wars, such as “Back our boys”, “Back up the fighting forces” or “Help us help our boys”, it is not hard to see similarities. At times of war, the Army was a significant unifying force because it represented the country it protected. The fact that we are using similar imagery with regards to the NHS helps to draw parallels between the two. If the comparison is extended, one can argue that, in the same way the Army was seen as bigger than any one person, the NHS can be viewed in a similar fashion.
Further resemblances can be drawn with the way people responded to the Government’s request for NHS volunteers. Over three quarters of a million people responded to the request, which turns out to be around triple the Government’s original target. This magnitude in response has not been seen since the recruitment for the Wars.
It could be argued that this is due to the crisis we face, not the NHS in particular. However, these numbers of volunteers are unparalleled in any other country, suggesting there is something more unique about ours. I believe the volunteers have come in as a defence for the NHS itself, not just to help those in need.
In Durkheim’s study of the Arunta tribe, the Totem pole formed the basis of the tribe’s cohesion. However, equally important were the rituals associated with the Totem pole. The current rite every Thursday at 8 o’clock of going out and clapping for the NHS workers, or putting rainbows on our windows, serves the same unifying function as the rituals performed by the tribe in Australia. It helps us to identify with something bigger than the individual.
In conjunction with this point, it is interesting to note that in the US, their private sector health workers do not receive similar ovations even though they are performing the same job. I believe that this, again, is due to the symbolism that the NHS carries. It is almost as if people feel an intense connection to the NHS, causing it to warrant these ceremonies. In the US and other countries, their health services remain just health services.
Whether the NHS can truly unify our ever-dividing country is uncertain. The UK has very deep internal cracks that need rectifying and I am not sure that the NHS can fix that. Nonetheless, it has been and continues to be, especially during these times, our most unifying symbol and will be fundamental, I believe, in carrying us through as a society during our current crisis.