The Glorious National Health Service

Article by Ashley Smith. Edited and Researched by Tom Burke.

It has well and truly been a glorious summer for Great Britain in 2012. The country was united during the Golden Jubilee celebrations, whilst we hosted the Olympic Games for the first time since 1948. At the time, this was a severe financial burden as the world recovered from the carnage caused by World War II, whilst Britain still had rationing in place. Nevertheless, it provided temporary joy in austere times – sound familiar?

Furthermore, we excelled in our home games, finishing third in the medal table with our highest gold medal tally since 1908. But what set the ball rolling for the Olympics was the marvellous opening ceremony spectacle, directed by filmmaker Danny Boyle.

With the overall theme “Isles of Wonder”, taken from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the principal sections of the artistic display represented Britain’s industrial revolution, National Health Service, and its musical and literary heritage. Although the Beijing ceremony had cost £65m compared to London’s subordinate budget of £27m, it was watched by an estimated worldwide television audience of 900 million, becoming the most-viewed Olympic ceremony in both the US and UK.

Danny Boyle’s tribute to the NHS predictably drew criticism from the Daily Mail calling it a ‘socialist’ event, whilst Tory MP Aiden Burley received criticism from the Prime Minister for his tweet which called the ceremony ‘leftie multi-cultural crap’, resulting in him disabling his Twitter account.

National Health Service

According to Boyle, the NHS received a special tribute because it was “the institution which more than any other unites our nation”. After all, the NHS is the largest and oldest single-payer healthcare system in the world, with almost all services free at the point of use for all UK citizens and legal immigrants.

A national health service was one of the fundamental assumptions in the Beveridge Report of 1942, which identified the five “Giant Evils” in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. The report formed the basis for the post-war reforms known as the Welfare State, implemented by the Labour government of 1945 under Clement Attlee, which included the expansion of National Insurance and the creation of the National Health Service.

Before its creation in 1948, patients were generally required to pay for their health care. Under the National Insurance Act of 1911, introduced by David Lloyd George, a small amount was deducted from weekly wages, to which were added contributions from the employer and the government. Although workmen who contributed to this system were entitled to medical care, drugs were not necessarily prescribed, and this imperfect system only covered certain trades and occupations. Moreover, due to the cuts of the austere 1930s, many were unable to obtain treatment.

Aneurin Bevan was trusted with the job of creating a national health service in the Labour government after the war ended. However, he quickly came to the conclusion that the 1944 White Paper’s proposal for local authority control of voluntary hospitals was not workable, as the local authorities were too poor and too small to manage hospitals. He decided that the only thing to do was to create an entirely new hospital service, so he set to work on what became affectionately known as ‘Bevan’s Baby’.

Although the National Health Service Act of 1946 had received royal assent by the same year, Bevan encountered considerable debate and resistance from the BMA who voted in May 1948 not to join the new service, but brought them on board by the time the new arrangements launched on 5th July 1948.

Ever since, the NHS has fabricated itself into the mainstream British culture, but especially into working-class culture. It is seen as the institution which was created on the foundations of the UK’s social democratic principles of the time, leading to an era of a supposed post-war social democratic consensus of social investment, nationalisation and Keynesian economic policies, which were even continued under successive Conservative governments until 1979.

In the modern era, the NHS is now the biggest employer in the whole of Europe. It is estimated that around £97bn is spent on the NHS every year, which represents good value for money in the 21st century, where you don’t have to be wealthy to be healthy.

The NHS has encountered serious problems in the last decade, with the private sector increasingly being used by the NHS to increase its capacity under Tony Blair’s reforms, and continued further by David Cameron. In April 2013, the controversial Health and Social Care Act of 2012 will come into force, in addition to Sir David Nicholson having to find £20bn of savings across the service by 2015.

But as Bevan said after the creation of the NHS: “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.”

  • The National Health Service was founded in 1949, and offers a range of free health services to UK citizens, and was largely heralded as the beginning of the welfare state.
  • The rate of home-ownership in the UK has grown from 10% to 68% of the population, from 1914 to 1999.
  • Charles Booth published his work Life and Labour of the People of London in 1889, a study of poverty in the East End of London which found that 35% of people were living in abject poverty.

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