Like many people in public health of my generation, John Ashton and Howard Seymour’s book, The New Public Health was an inspiration. It plotted a path of public health from its Victorian roots to the 1980s. Many people I speak to who have read the book, are particularly impressed by a series of photos from a class of schoolchildren in Liverpool going back 100 years. From stunted, adenoidal faces in the late 19th century to the smiling, white-toothed, well-looking children of the 1970s the pictures are a graphic illustration of the progress made in public health over that time.
The Health For All ambition of the 1980s and the Ottawa Charter on which it is based, and which are described in detail in the book, saw public health building on that legacy by making cross-sectoral alliances at all levels in society. Working in settings such as the school and prison, working with partners in the voluntary sector, local government and health services at district, city and national level and forging alliances across nations we could fashion a future which would achieve this lofty goal of Health For All by the year 2000.
But the dream has gone sour. A countervailing current of neo-liberal economics has played out across the globe since the 1980s creating greater inequality between people within and between nations than ever before. Furthermore, as our industrial culture expands and consumes ever-increasing amounts of material resources, chickens are coming home to roost, not least in the guise of climate change and other major environmental challenges.