His murders are said by many to be inexplicable, while amateur psychologists have put them down to grief over his mother’s death. But what’s most likely to lie behind Harold Shipman’s assuming of medical power over “who lived and who died”? Well, what stands out from the Shipman story is the way he saw himself as superior to others, which resulted in him feeling at liberty to either treat or terminate.
He left grammar school as part of an elite within society and went on to university. He set up his own one-man surgery because he couldn’t abide working with others in a group practice. He targeted the working class poor and elderly (rather than higher-income so-called “middle class” patients) for being a miserable burden on his valuable time (relief from which he sought by stealing and self-injecting pethidine), as well as a drain on the NHS (which his professionally- and hard-earned taxes helped pay for). He looked relatives of those he murdered in the eye and gave bogus explanations without feeling any remorse. He is said to have enjoyed the role of “master of ceremonies” following a death and presented himself as “omniscient”. He constantly denied having ever done wrong, doubtless because in his own mind, he hadn’t. And finally, there was his behaviour in jail (“annoying, arrogant and difficult”), which resulted in him being locked up each evening an hour and a half earlier than other inmates, losing his prison cell TV, and having his pocket money reduced from £12.50 to £3. For a man who saw himself as better than most, this would have been intolerable.
So, what is it that makes people see themselves as better than others, and confers a hierarchical ranking in society? It’s capitalism, the word that appeared nowhere in the media following Shipman’s death, and won’t appear anywhere in “Dame” Janet Smith’s reports into his murders which numbered around 200 to 400.
Shipman can be seen as an extreme example of a working man – a “professional” – who came to develop an intense loathing of people because of capitalism and its money mechanism. Thousands of GPs have become bitter over heavy workloads, underfunded surgeries and pay, and wanting to apportion blame, have also felt resentment towards the poorest patients, as Shipman did. Such feelings are generated when doctors accept the capitalist way of living, even unenthusiastically. But most pressurised GPs usually find other ways than a lethal morphine injection to get rid of human ‘burdens’.
This anger and resentment is due to the steady decline of the NHS, which in turn is down to a desire by successive governments to cut state funding and introduce market forces and privatisation wherever possible.
That the thought processes of medical practitioners can be so perverted by capitalism that they go along with murdering ‘inferior’ people seen as burdens is by no means new. It happened to thousands under Adolf Hitler’s euthanasia programme. Over a four-year period up to 1943, mentally ill patients of all ages were selected and taken by the bus-load to “killing hospitals” to be disposed of by lethal injection or starvation “for their own good” by doctors and nurses.
Capitalism, having created the monster that was Shipman, also played a part in his own death. Modifying all prisons to remove or cover ligature points, like window bars, from which prisoners might hang themselves, has never happened because of the financial cost to capitalism.
Shipman’s suicide isn’t something that many will regret, though not having abolished the system that produced him, should be. As are the suicides of many others imprisoned – many merely poor and deprived, driven to shoplift some food or clothing they couldn’t afford, or unable to pay a bill.