The denialists, detractors and critics of homeopathy were back in action this week. In a critical letter to the BMJ protesting against the Government seeking advice (sic) from experts on the registration of homeopathic products. Referring to homeopathy as ‘naked quackery’ and ‘pseudoscience’, the letter was written by Susan Bewley (an obstetrician) ‘on behalf’ of a list of names including the usual suspects, Ernst, Baum, Rose etc.) It seems the letter section of the BMJ has become a popular forum for these doctors to spout their vituperative, amateur homilies on medical politics.
So let us look at the history of the politics of homeopathy in the UK. It is important to acknowledge that throughout its history homeopathy has been attacked for the same reasons: Dilutions, implausibility, quackery and now ‘pseudoscience’, ‘bad science’ etc.
19th Century: Dr F. Quin studies homeopathy in Germany, brings it to the UK, treats the Prince of Wales and builds the London Homeopathic Hospital. Several other homeopathic hospitals are built in England and Scotland.
1948: The NHS is formed and all the homeopathic hospitals are INVITED to become part of it. This is the reason why homeopathy (unlike aother forms of CAM) is so strongly integrated into the NHS. Homeopathic doctors and their benefactors had built hospitals staffed by doctors specialising in homeopathic treatment prior to the formation of the NHS.
1948-1990: Homeopathy becomes more and more popular both on the NHS and in private medicine. However the opposition movement becomes more determined to end NHS homeopathy. They attack on two main fronts: PR & Media and direct political attack. On the media front, The Guardian newspaper and the supposedly neutral BBC prove to be particularly useful allies to their cause but in the realm of official politics they suffer serious defeats.
December 2009 Political Defeat I: The denialists manage to get a Science and Technology Subcommittee to do an ‘Evidence Check’ on homeopathy. The findings of these controversial hearings is voted on by only 4MPs of a possible 12-13 and only 2 of those 4 actually attended the hearings! Mike O’Brien, the then Minister of Health in the Labour government speaks at the hearings. He famously describes the draconian anti-homeopathic suggestions of the Committee as ‘illiberal’ and makes it clear that GPs and local health authorities are best placed to decide if their patients should get NHS homeopathy or not.
July 2010: Political Defeat II: The report (with its authoritarian anti-homeopathic and anti-democratic recommendations) passes to the new Coalition Government for consideration. The new Health Minister, Anne Milton thanks the S&T Committee for their work but then kicks all their recommendations into touch. Her reasons for doing so are much the same as the Labour minister’s: GPs and local health authorities should be trusted to make the best decisions for their patients. An infuriated Michael Baum pours scorn on her in a well-publicised letter to the Lancet concluding with a condescending “Shame on you Minister!” I was personally astonished by the aggressive, rant-like nature of this letter as Baum had only a few months before called for the debate on homeopathy to return to the ‘realm of polite disputation’.
So summing up:
Government under Labour: supported homeopathy on the NHS.
Government under Coalition: reiterated this support almost to the letter.
Head of State and family: are known to use and have used homeopathy for several generations.
The detractors, denialists and illiberal, wannabe Statist authoritarians have tried to thwart GPs (rather than dissuade them which would at least be respectable) from referring patients for NHS homeopathy by insisting that their scientism trump due democratic process – but it hasn’t worked. Despite what Ben Goldacre writes in the Guardian, despite the letters to BMJ and Lancet, and despite inexplicable and inexcusable BBC bias against homeopathy, both Labour and Coalition Governments have seen fit to protect the significant minority support for homeopathy in the UK as well as the rights of British GPs to send their own patients for NHS homeopathy if they so wish. In doing so Government has so far managed to resist a serious, concerted attempt to undermine the democratic provision of health care in this country.
The attack on homeopathy has been a veritable Pandora’s Box of vitriol and bias that has certainly damaged British homeopathy by it’s sheer persistence and seemingly well-funded mass pressure at a PR level. It is heartening to know that at least at a pure political level, there has been unequivocal support by both Labour and the Coalition not only for homeopathy, but for something equally as important – liberal democracy itself. Fortunately the last thing to come out of this particular Pandora’s Box was still Hope.