Amol Rajan: A revelation of Britishness in the heart of the NHS

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On Tuesday I had a minor operation at University College Hospital (UCH) in London.

Nothing serious, you'll be disappointed to discover. Yet seven hours in the very bowels of our National Health Service, in a week when the Care Quality Commission reported that more than a quarter of NHS and social care services in England are failing to meet essential standards, prompted three main reflections on what it means to be British today. These are general sentiments, not policy prescriptions.

The first striking thing was how un-English UCH is. I know this is central London, but 80 per cent of staff and patients seemed of foreign extraction. My pre-assessment nurse was Filipino, my anaesthetist was Australian, and my post-op nurse was an exquisitely charming young Nigerian called Adebola, who explained with rare erudition why his beloved Sir Alex Ferguson will never retire.

I am young, healthy, not poor, and childless, so I don't depend as much on our public services as many others. Regular readers will know I am a huge fan of immigration, not on economic grounds but because the typical migrant's tale is the ultimate expression of what it means to be human, and that is something I feel governments should encourage rather than criminalise.

But when, in the outpatients clinic, I saw a series of women with hijabs, and then an uppity, rude Romanian man summoned to the registration desk before the few white folk around, I saw a flash of something disapproving – anger? distaste? envy? – in their faces, and felt it somehow understandable.

The second reflection was: never under-estimate the consolatory power of time spent in an institution where staff are there because they care. This extraordinary temple of needles, monitors and drips was a monument to compassion: to the irreducible moral conviction that suffering is bad.

For the last reflection, forgive me if I adopt a medical metaphor. If our whole country were a single body, government would be the head (not the brain – that's our education system) and the NHS would be its beating heart. To see the sheer volume of people, paperwork, and investment that goes into a single operation is to see how this fallible, precious institution pumps the lifeblood of our nation.

When Nigel Lawson said the NHS is "the nearest thing we have to an established Church", he intended no sarcasm. Above all, my experience of the NHS reminded me what a tremendous stroke of luck it is to be born British, not that I was.

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