THERE may be a novel element of déjà vu, if you see what I mean, about this election’s promises to let you vote again (or not) on once-in-a-lifetime referendums that were going to settle matters for good. But we can still rely on the campaign perennials, such as how many days we have to save the NHS.

It was 14 days (Tony Blair, 1997) and either three months (Ed Miliband, 2012) or 100 days (Ed Miliband, 2015); it’s been 13 days (Len McCluskey, 2012) or five (John Reid, 2014). The Mirror can never decide; it was 48 hours in 2011, and either 12 days or 24 hours the following year; in 2015 it was 52 hours, then four months.

It was rarer to hear what it was being saved from, though you could be sure that it involved Tory callousness. It used to be underfunding and cuts, then it was a secret plan to privatise it. At the SNP’s 2012 conference, Nicola Sturgeon wanted to save it from the Union, although the Scottish Health Service is entirely devolved, because… well, that never became clear, except that it’s obvious that all political problems can be solved only by independence, and independence will solve all political problems.

Now there’s the rallying point that we’re saving it from the Tories, Brexit and Donald Trump. The trouble with these claims is that they are all misleading. Indeed, they are such hogwash that Chris Hopson, the chief of NHS Providers, has warned all the political parties against “weaponising” the health service, “over-dramatising” its problems, “making empty promises” or creating “unrealistic expectations”.

These political points owe more to Dr Schrödinger – not that kind of doctor – than the “proper, mature, evidence-based” debate Mr Hopson wants. The NHS, like Schrödinger’s cat, is simultaneously thriving, the “envy of the world” and its best, indeed its only humane, health provider; and also in a terminal state, starved of funds, and destroyed by privatisation.

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That’s because the claims are contradictory. Take funding. There has never been a year (except 1954/5) in which the annual rise in real terms government expenditure on the NHS has not been above 2 per cent; for about half the NHS’s history, it’s received more than a 4 per cent annual rise. It has always far outpaced both GDP and total public spending, and is always the highest ever.

But costs have also risen, because of advances in medical technology and an ageing population. That’s why you can claim the system is under strain, while every government is spending “the most ever”. The Tories are spending £2.7 billion over the next five years in addition to the £20 billion they promised until 2023, but Labour can still maintain the NHS faces the tightest funding squeeze in modern history.

Similarly, in Scotland, where the SNP government has competence in health, more is spent per capita than in England (and more, such as free prescriptions, offered), yet health outcomes and waiting lists are worse in many areas, and capital funding has fallen by 63 per cent in the decade they’ve been in charge, with coming on for a £1 billion backlog in maintenance issues.

But if major projects have been botched, and PFI has proved a bad idea, all the parties are responsible. John Major introduced the idea, but most of it was done under Gordon Brown – indeed, it was recently claimed that its architect was his adviser Jonathan Ashworth, now, er, Labour’s Shadow Health Spokesman.

The question of privatisation is equally distorted, not least because much of the NHS was never nationalised. GPs, for example, are almost all private providers. Equipment, drugs and services have always been supplied by external companies. But the total cost of private contracts has been largely static at 7 per cent or so; indeed, according to the King’s Fund, it’s fallen under the Tories. So if they have a secret plan to privatise the NHS, they’re making a pretty dreadful job of it.

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As for US firms buying the NHS, it’s nonsense. The NHS already buys from international pharmaceutical companies, lots of them American (and, don’t tell Jeremy Corbyn, Israeli). Under a US trade deal, perhaps some American firms could tender for services, but European ones already do – in fact, it’s EU rules that require competitive tender. America may have a terrible set-up, but EU health systems all have privatised elements.

But the point, whether it’s catering or care services, is to get a better service at a cheaper price. That’s why Labour’s ambition to nationalise the whole service, presumably from laundry to GPs, and opticians to pharmaceutical research, is even stupider than the Tories’ claim than spending £100 million on upgrades is the same as building 40 new hospitals.

We may want to debate the NHS, and every party wants to paint itself as its champion. That can’t happen if we’re debating things, such as selling it off, that none of the parties want to do, or things, like nationalising all of it, and giving it as much money as it could ever spend, that none of the parties could do.