Britons have a rather complex love-hate relationship with the National Health Service which is both revered as a proud symbol of the post-war British welfare state and reviled as a lumbering, inefficient bureaucracy with an outdated service ethos. But this past week, it has been love all the way with the entire nation, including the usually NHS-bashing Tories, rising to its defence in a collective fit of anger and self-righteousness.

This extraordinary outpouring of affection for an institution that is often referred to as the “National Sick Service” is a reaction to the virulent anti-NHS campaign going on in America where right-wing critics of President Barack Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms have warned that if the reforms go through Americans would end up with an NHS-style , “evil” and “Orwellian,” system.

American media is said to be awash with horror stories about the NHS with campaigners resorting to what The Financial Times described as a “gross mis-characterisation” of Britain’s tax-funded healthcare .

“Some of the charges levelled against the NHS are plumb wrong: that Ted Kennedy would not get treatment for his brain tumour in the U.K.; that the NHS indulges in forced euthanasia; that people over 59 do not get coronary artery bypasses,” the newspaper said.

The old and the terminally ill are being warned that under an NHS–type regime they would be denied expensive life-saving drugs. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has lashed out against proposals to prioritise healthcare on the lines of NHS claiming that under such a system children like her own autistic son would be on the mercy of “death panels.”

Campaigners are desperately wooing Britons willing to criticise NHS. Two British women, who feature in a rabidly anti-NHS documentary being shown on American TV, have alleged that they were “duped” into taking part in it and that their views were distorted.

Kate Spall and Katie Brickell, who are shown saying they were “failed” by NHS, have said they were misled about the nature of the documentary and had no idea that their interviews would be used in a propaganda film.

“It has been a bit of a nightmare... I feel I have been duped,” Ms Spall told The Times saying she was appalled by how her words were used to portray her as someone who was against a tax-funded health service.

“The irony is that I campaign for exactly the people that socialised healthcare supports. I would not align myself with this group [who made the film] at all,” she said.

According to Ms Brickell, her well-intended criticism of NHS was “skewed out of proportion” giving the impression that she was opposed to it.

“My point was not that the NHS shouldn’t exist or that it was a bad thing. I think that our health service is not perfect but to get better it needs more money, not less,” she clarified.

Level of hysteria

Such is the level of hysteria that an American newspaper even dragged Stephen Hawking, the noted British scientist, into the controversy saying that someone like him would be considered “worthless” under an NHS-type system because of his disability. Prof. Hawking retorted that, on the contrary, “I would not be here today if not for the NHS.”

Britons have reacted to the attacks on the NHS by closing ranks with Prime Minister Gordon Brown leading the way. Mr. Brown, who is famously awkward with new media, took the extraordinary step of going on the social networking site Twitter to sing the praises of NHS.

“NHS often makes the difference between pain and comfort, despair and hope, life and death. Thanks for always being there,” he wrote with his wife Sarah (a self-confessed Twitter junkie) adding for good measure: “We love the NHS — more than words can say.”

Tory leader David Cameron also leapt to its defence hailing it as a “great national institution” and slapped down a party member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan, who caused outrage when he told Fox News that the NHS was so bad that he “wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

Dismissing Mr. Hannan as an “eccentric,” Mr. Cameron said the Tories stood “four square behind the NHS.”

“One of the wonderful things about living in this country is that the moment you’re injured or fall ill — no matter who you are, where you are from, or how much money you’ve got - you know that the NHS will look after you,” he cooed.

Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron owe a personal debt to the NHS. Mr. Brown, who lost sight in one eye as a schoolboy, has often said that but for the NHS he may have become totally blind.

Mr. Cameron, though, is a late convert to the NHS — discovering its virtues after his disabled son Ivan (who died recently) was treated in a NHS hospital. But for all his efforts to portray the Tories as “`the party of the NHS” there are deep divisions on the issue with a number of his senior colleagues said to be in favour of effectively dismantling it arguing that it is “no longer relevant to the 21st century.”

For now, though, faced with a “common enemy” across the pond, the new orthodoxy is to appear united in support of the NHS even if in their unguarded moments some Tories find themselves agreeing with Mr. Hannan’s description of it as a “60-year-old mistake.”