Diary talks to John Marks, ex-chairman of the British Medical Association
03 August, 2018 — By The Xtra Diary
John Marks, ex-chairman of the British Medical Association, and his wife Shirley
He cuts an affable, avuncular figure in the Commons. And for many, as Father of the House, his speeches have a seductive sound about them.
But don’t mention the name Kenneth Clarke to the man who has been his arch enemy for nearly 30 years – John Marks, ex- chairman of the British Medical Association.
Mr Marks, now 93, isn’t the sort of man who easily bears a grudge but his voice rises a few decibels at the mere sound of the name because, to him, Kenneth Clarke has caused inestimable damage to his beloved National Health Service.
Kenneth Clarke, health secretary in the 1990s
Mr Marks, who qualified as a doctor in the year the NHS was founded in 1948, has been a devotee of the institution ever since.
So someone like Kenneth Clarke, health secretary in the 1990s, easily fell foul of him.
“He bloody well helped to introduce the ‘internal market’ into the NHS, and that will spell its end,” Mr Marks exploded as Diary talked to him in his St John’s Wood flat.
According to Mr Marks, the NHS went askew the day hospitals became self-governing and ruled by endless tiers of accountants and administrators.
Mr Marks was more than an individual critic of the Tory reforms – he led the charge against them as BMA chairman.
He relishes the part he played in the campaign – it’s as if he had been destined to take up the cudgels from the moment his National Service as an Army doctor ended in the early 1950s and he became a GP.
Diary has met all kinds of doctors but Mr Marks is different. It’s not simply that he is outspoken, opinionated, and full of humour, but if you didn’t know who he was you would take him as a typical, funny Jewish Cockney-type. And no wonder! He came from a middling family – his father was the guv’nor at a couple of London pubs.
Medical politics came easily to him until eventually he was elected chairman of the BMA. And he was so good at it that he banged the gavel for a record six years.
As a born raconteur, with a jokey style, he became a regular at TV and radio studios. He was the perfect PR man for the BMA.
It was around this time he became looked upon as a “national treasure” in the media.
As chairman he recalls how he enjoyed showing a “timid” Princess Diana around the BMA. But his memories of her husband Prince Charles are less benign. He remembers Charles’s poor joke in his presidential address that the initials BMA stood for “Bigoted, Moribund and Apathetic”.
Any other chairman would have probably ignored the prince’s remarks but Mr Marks was determined to say his piece. He replied that the BMA’s campaigning spirit proved it was alive and kicking, and how could it be “bigoted” if had elected a Jewish Cockney to lead it!
Mr Marks also remembers how he clashed with Kenneth Clarke only a few months ago when they both spoke at a London seminar.
After Mr Clarke had run through all the achievements of the NHS Mr Marks pointed out how cataract operations were now being rationed and the supply of hearing aids cut, and then came his punchline: “And if that shows a healthy and buoyant NHS, my name is Kenneth Clarke!”
Diary had gone to see Mr Marks as he is one of the few surviving doctors who joined the profession shortly after the NHS was launched 70 years ago.
Ironically we would have expected Mr Marks to have been honoured in his long and distinguished career both in medicine and in medical politics.
It is a fairly well-known convention that honours are bestowed on whoever chairs the BMA. And if, as in the case of Mr Marks, the title of chairman spanned six years, it would have been expected that, in all likelihood, he may well have been knighted.
But no honour – though recommended – has ever made its way to Mr Marks.
Diary didn’t discuss this with Mr Marks, and if we had, he would no doubt have batted us away. Yet we wonder whether his very public campaigns against the establishment and his plain- spokenness about Prince Charles had somehow allowed his recommendation to get lost.
It would have been all very English – the sort of thing that isn’t publicly talked about.