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Radcliffe: ‘What is it that the RCN represents at the moment?’

Mark Radcliffe
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I rarely write about the Royal College of Nursing. 

Yes I have gently mocked them on occasion because all institutions should be mocked and goodness knows there has been a lot to mock over the years and yes, sometimes I have disagreed with their politics and even their demeanour – a cross between Captain Mainwaring out of Dads Army and the Queen Mother – but I don’t often write about them because they don’t really move me. In truth, in the 32 years since I started nursing they have been – for me – mostly irrelevant

The RCN narrative has always been built around its dual roles. It is both a professional organisation and a trade union. It is, if you like, a Jaffa Cake on a supermarket aisle of representative bureaucracies. Never fluent enough to rival the Fondant Fancies and never politically astute enough to be able to match the Hobnobs. In trying to be two things it has failed to be either, and yet, arguably this struggle to be all things to all people has defined it as unique and acted as an excuse for its failures.

Personally, I always felt it functioned less as a self-conscious, articulate and politically mature spokesperson for one of the largest and most important groups of workers in Europe and rather more like a club. And clubs are by nature a wee bit insular aren’t they? And of course, self-perpetuating.

Deep down they mostly make me shrug, but there was one line in the letter sent out by the RCN council to some members prior to last month’s extraordinary general meeting that should not be shrugged off: “This is a potentially dangerous time for the college with this small group of members putting at risk what has always been a proudly non-party-political organisation, acting on behalf of, and representing members whatever their opinions or background”.

That is a letter written by a club committee about ‘less important members’. It is a letter written to exclude membership, to resist change and to maintain positions of privilege. It is what one might expect from a 1950s golf club.

And that is before we get to the bit that is proud to be non-party-political, which is a long-handed way of saying “we don’t understand politics as being about power, we think they are about other clubs”.

I never joined the RCN because as a younger man I didn’t trust anybody or certainly any organisation that aspired to be apolitical. For me then – and while I made a lot of mistakes back in the 80s and have the photographs to prove it, I’m not sure this was one of them – there was no such thing as apolitical. Not taking a political position was a lazy and slightly embarrassing way of agreeing with whoever had power. It was collaboration, or acquiescence.

Nowadays I would frame the same disquiet in moral terms. Nursing expresses a compassion for strangers every minute of every day and elevates us, doesn’t it? It presents our often cruel, spiteful and rageful society as capable of great virtue. It makes decency and kindness manifest. And one would like to think that nursing representation might exercise a similar moral force when it seeks to protect or advance the profession and wellbeing of nursing.

Does it? From the outside, I’m not sure I understand what it is for at the moment. Perhaps this recent argument might act as a catalyst for change. Perhaps newer, more politically astute members will come forward and help develop a more progressive way of representing nurses. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, I’m glad I’m not in that particular club.

Mark Radcliffe is author of Stranger than Kindness.

Follow him on twitter @markacradcliffe

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