I’m fascinated by the media frenzy around Tom Moore, the 99-year old WWII veteran who set out to raise £1000 for NHS Charities by walking around his garden 100 times, and ‘accidentally’ found himself raising £18million and counting. The social media sharing I have seen has been overwhelmingly positive, with a small non-concurring minority, and I find myself troubled by both camps.
First, the nay-sayers. The backlash to the Tom Moore story has centred on how broken it is that we are looking to an old man to fund the National Health Service, rather than adequate taxation. Indeed, some have shared the German observation, “In Germany we don't do charity, we do taxation.” Well, here’s the thing: in Britain, we do both, taxation and charity; we don’t see them as an either/or, small State/big State polarity. To be clear: Tom Moore is not fundraising for the core provision of the NHS, which is paid for (inadequately) by taxation, but for the NHS Charities. These exist, and would exist even if the NHS was adequately funded by taxation (which it isn’t), in order to go above and beyond. They exist for, and because of, those people who have been helped by the NHS who say, “Over and above paying my taxes, I want to do something to help, to give some small thing back, bearing in mind that I can never repay the debt I owe and I know that you would never ask me to.” This is public-private (or, perhaps better, personal) partnership; the person as both citizen of the state and participant in the community. We might argue that the balance is not right at present, but the argument that, “It is a scandal that the NHS should be supported by charity” actually undermines the very important argument that the NHS should be significantly better funded by taxation, because it presents, by simplistic sloganeering, a false case.
All this being so, I am disturbed by the Captain Tom Moore story. Firstly, I am disturbed because here is an elderly man who has been exploited—albeit willingly; and I choose the word ‘exploited’ deliberately—by a media whose interest is in a very different circulation figure than 100 laps of a garden. Media outlets including, though not restricted to, newspapers who have exerted all the resources at their disposal to keep political parties proposing progressive taxation and better funding for the NHS out of power. This is bread and circuses, a distraction—and we lap it up.
Secondly, I am disturbed by the sheer disproportionality of the public response. Tom Moore wanted to raise £1000, as a personal thank you, from himself, from those who know him and who know what and whom he is thankful for. But this is denied him, by the British obsession with the Grand Gesture—not only giving millions, but also calling for a knighthood, and on us all to send him a birthday card. There is something deeply unhealthy about this, and something that says much more about us, collectively, than a shared belief in the NHS being a good thing deserving of our support (which it is—though, devoid of personal connection, this episode does veer towards taxation by proxy). That is to say, our motives are mixed, and alongside something good there is something murky we are turning a blind eye to, in the hope that if we ignore that persistent cough it won’t ‘turn into’ (or, out to be) lung cancer. At best, we just don’t know how to respond proportionally and in sustainable ways. We feed ourselves on exciting stories of war heroes, and neglect role models who got on with the hard work of rebuilding a quiet world, recovering from the fever of competitive injustice.
I wish that most of us had never heard of Tom Moore. His worth is not dependent on our acclaim, and ours is not enhanced by his. Let us, like him, play our part, and let that be enough.