I’ve written a lot of bad news reaction pieces over the last few years. In June 2016, I was at my desk in The Independent’s London office when the EU referendum results came in, upsetting everything we’d planned for the next day’s news agenda. I was stunned. I come from Newcastle, which is often erroneously reported to have voted Leave by London-based media outfits. Both my parents have been card-carrying Labour Party members since teenagehood who marched alongside the miners. The idea that I live in a “media elite bubble” has always seemed laughable to me. But I didn’t see it coming.
Later that year, in November, I wrote a triumphant article about the first female president of the United States on the eve of the US election. Having completed the final flourishes, I left my desk for a good night’s sleep, and was then called back in to work at 5am as the results took an unexpected turn. I hopped on the first tube of the day in the dark, pouring rain and started from scratch. To add insult to injury, Trump was sworn in on my birthday.
Today, it’s time for another article I never wanted to write. I transferred to the New York City bureau in 2019, and this week I watched my country vote against its own interests from afar. The idea that Boris Johnson — the man who was against Brexit, then for Brexit, who was for the single market, then against the single market, who was going to lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent an extra runway at Heathrow before failing to even turn up to vote against it — has our best interests at heart seems ridiculous to the point of delusion. When my dad texted me to let me know they were doing a recount in Blyth I knew it was bad. Blyth, the former mining town on the coast beside Newcastle where my mum had her first kiss? That Blyth? The same Blyth which has been Labour not just throughout my own lifetime, but before my parents’ lifetimes? Durham I could believe, but Blyth made me genuinely sad.
What I fear for most now is the NHS, and that’s because I live in a country with fully privatised healthcare.
Over the last year, I have become intimately involved with America’s dystopian healthcare system. While TV commercials pushing cancer drugs, painkillers and steroids wash over my American colleagues, I still find them jarring. There are many, many ads about what to do if you can’t afford to take your sick child to hospital, or to refill his asthma prescription. If you think a picture of a child lying on the floor of a hospital in Leeds is bad, consider how many equally ill children stay in the back of their parents’ cars in the car parks outside American hospitals while their parents try to work out how they could afford to pay to take them in. Those are the parents with insurance. The ones without won’t even get as far as the car park.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the US spends more on healthcare per citizen than any other country in the world. It could have had an NHS. But once you open the Pandora’s box of privatisation, prices tend to skyrocket through greed and manipulation perpetuated by a dense thicket of overpaid insurance companies, middle-men, and pharmaceutical companies. We only need Boris Johnson, whose financial situation means he can opt out of ever needing to use the NHS if he wants to, to grant Donald Trump a teeny, tiny favor before everything comes crashing down around us. And Trump is likely to want a teeny, tiny favor, because Brexit is coming, and Britain desperately needs a trade deal. Boris desperately needs a trade deal.
Living in a country like America where socialism is a dirty word changes you psychologically. You stop prioritising your own health; you don’t see a doctor for a concerning symptom because you have other bills to pay, and it’ll probably go away. You watch people line up in your local corner shop with food stamps and you see it as normal. Those people have jobs — it’s a requirement. They probably don’t have health insurance. You hold the hand of a friend who’s worried she’s pregnant and crying about the fact that she’d never be able to afford the $8,000 out-of-pocket expenses to give birth, never mind the $600 per month to get the baby access to healthcare as well.
You stop drinking milk, because the dairy is pumped full of antibiotics and hormones so factory farmers can sell, sell, sell beyond the biological capacities of the animals involved, despite the antibiotic apocalypse and what it means for humanity. You avoid meat and fish because their animal welfare legislation is basically nonexistent. You worry about what might be in the water because people across the country are being poisoned with lead and no one wants to put in the money to sort it out. You live in housing conditions which you’ve previously only seen in developing countries. You see companies shrug their shoulders and shirk their responsibilities to the climate in the name of profit.
You pay extortionate tips to servers because there is no minimum wage and a lot of them make so little per hour to be there that they don’t even bother cashing their salary cheques. And yes, they still use cheques, because their banking system never bothered to modernize round its customers and you have to pay to do a transfer, pay to take money out of an ATM, pay to have any kind of bank account at all. Everything is built to make the corporations money, and to take out of the pockets of the people on the ground.
This is a country which worships at the altar of the open market. It is the regulation-light land many Conservatives want for the UK. Currently, it is undergoing a small, left-wing uprising with a popular social media following — but then Labour seemed like it was going to win from Twitter and Facebook as well. America is a fantastic land of optimism and opportunity, and I am very lucky to have the chance to live here. But it is also a brutal, merciless place with a bad record on maternal mortality, educational achievement, preventable disease, and homelessness. It does not perform anywhere near as well as a country this wealthy should do on such international metrics. It isn’t set up to do so. And its president seems to think that's a good thing.
There’s nothing free about billionaires buying their way into politics. There’s nothing free about tech companies swallowing each other up into one big, oligarchical mass. There’s nothing free about having to pay for an ambulance. There’s nothing free about leaving the EU only to tether ourselves to the US, allowing them to set all the preconditions because we’re desperate.
With Boris Johnson in charge, I worry we will all be less free. I fear that, in a toxic alliance with Donald Trump, he will do things which can’t be undone. And if this election result in the UK points to a surge for Trump in 2020, you can bet Britain will feel the consequences.