President Trump has a way of bringing Britons together.
He united them in outrage when he retweeted anti-Muslim videos posted by a far-right British party. He galvanized popular support for London’s mayor when he accused the mayor of not taking terror threats seriously – even as London was recovering from a deadly terror strike. And following a visit to the White House last year, Prime Minister Theresa May was mercilessly mocked in the British press for appearing overly sycophantic toward Trump, to the point of walking hand-in-hand with him.
Now comes a presidential broadside against Britain’s National Health Service – and Britons, by and large, are having none of it.
After large-scale weekend protests in London demanding improvements and better funding for the public health service, which offers most medical treatments free of charge or at low cost, Trump tweeted Monday morning that the NHS was “going broke and not working.”
The president, who has sought to scrap the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, one of his predecessor’s signature achievements, accused rival Democrats in the U.S. of “pushing for Universal HealthCare while thousands of people are marching in the UK.” Characterizing the protests as a call to get rid of NHS altogether, Trump said of any move to provide single-payer care for Americans: “No thanks!”
Virtually no one in Britain considers the NHS perfect: The need for urgent reforms, such as reducing waiting times and adding doctors and hospital beds, was the declared point of the weekend demonstrations.
But Trump’s critique touched a raw nerve in a country that considers universal access to medical services to be something akin to a national treasure, under a system created just after World War II and now relied on by millions of people.
After Trump’s tweet, Britons went on social media and related personal stories of having received free or low-cost medical treatment for debilitating or life-threatening ailments, and denounced a U.S. system under which serious illness can lead to bankruptcy or death or both. Others pointed to Britain’s lower healthcare costs and longer life expectancy when compared with the United States.
“All due respect, sir, it’s working for me,” filmmaker Colin Trevorrow tweeted from an NHS hospital, where he said he was recovering from an emergency appendectomy. He described his care as excellent.
Another Twitter user whose handle is David Ellis wrote: “I was born with a rare heart defect that would have killed me” without NHS treatment.
May has generally been reluctant to criticize Trump, with aides citing the longstanding “special relationship” with Washington, Britain’s closest ally, and noting Britain’s hopes of forging a strong trade relationship with the United States following a planned exit from the European Union. But May said through a spokesman that she was “proud of our NHS” and extolled the healthcare system’s top world ranking.
May also publicly backed her health minister, Jeremy Hunt, who had earlier said on Twitter that he disagreed with some of the marchers, “but not ONE of them wants to live in a system where 28m people have no cover.” He added: “NHS may have challenges but I’m proud to be from the country that invented universal coverage – where all get care no matter the size of their bank balance.”
Similar views came from across the political spectrum. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labor Party, flatly declared Trump “wrong” and said people were marching “because we love our NHS and hate what the Tories” – May’s Conservative Party – “are doing to it.”
Like so many Trump tweets attacking something or someone, this one appeared to have been inspired by cable television, specifically Fox News. Before the president took to Twitter, Nigel Farage – a right-wing politician and broadcaster who is an ardent Trump supporter – appeared in a segment in which he castigated the health service as being “pretty much at a breaking point.”
Touching on another favorite Trump theme, Farage – once touted by Trump as a good choice to be the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Washington, an idea May’s government politely ignored -- blamed the burdens placed on the healthcare system on the government’s immigration policies.
Public opinion polls have consistently shown Trump to be a highly unpopular figure in Britain, and fear of hostile crowds may be one reason the president has yet to go to the country -- an unusual omission for a U.S. leader after more than a year in office. Last year, almost as soon as Trump was inaugurated, May was sharply criticized at home for inviting him to pay a state visit, a ceremonial, pomp-filled affair that would likely involve an audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
Distaste grew in Britain when Trump launched Twitter attacks against London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, after a terror attack in and near London’s Borough Market in June that killed eight people. In November, he told May, in essence, to mind her own business when her spokesman condemned the president’s retweet of virulently anti-Muslim videos posted by the extreme nationalist party Britain First.
“Theresa May, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Both sides say a state visit will happen, but have not said when. Trump in January passed up a chance to visit London and inaugurate the new U.S. Embassy, complaining on Twitter that the new diplomatic facility was overpriced and located in an unsuitable neighborhood. He blamed that on former President Obama, although the deal to move the previous embassy, which was deemed too difficult to adequately protect, was made under the George W. Bush administration.
Another potentially awkward moment in U.S.-British ties awaits in May, when Prince Harry will marry American actress Meghan Markle, royal nuptials being depicted on both sides of the Atlantic as a swoon-worthy social event. Harry is friendly with Obama, and British tabloids speculated the prince would want to include the former first couple on the guest list, but had likely come under pressure from the palace to invite Trump and his wife, Melania, instead.
Trump said last month in an interview with Piers Morgan that he didn’t know if he was being invited to the wedding.