Nye Bevan and Nostalgia for the Era Before the NHS: My Response to a Critic

Last week I received a comment from Billellson criticising me for stating that Aneurin Bevan was the architect of the NHS. He also stated that we did not have a private healthcare system before the NHS, and although some charges were made, they were in his words, not so much that people would lose their house.

Here’s what he wrote.

“Nye Bevan, the architect of the NHS, was also acutely aware of the way ordinary women suffered under the private health care system that put medicine out of the reach of the poor.”
Aneurin Bevan was not the architect of the National Health Service. The NHS was a wartime coalition policy, for the end of hostilities, agreed across parties. The concept was set out in the Beveridge Report published in December 1942, endorsed by Winston Churchill in a national broadcast in 1943 and practical proposals, including those the things the public value re the NHS today, set out in a white paper by Minister of Health Conservative Henry Willink in March 1944. It would have been established whoever was Minister of Health after the war / whichever party won the 1945 general election. The UK did not have a ‘private health care system’ before the NHS. Most hospitals in England and Wales were local government owned and run, the remainder voluntary (charitable). Those who could afford to pay for treatment were required to do so, or at least make a contribution, but nobody was expected to sell their house. The poor were treated in hospitals free of charge. c11 million workers were covered for GP consultations by the National Health Insurance Scheme which had been established in 1911. In many places, particularly mining areas, there were mutual aid societies that established health facilities including dispensaries. Scotland had a greater degree of state health provision and Northern Ireland had greater faith based provision before their NHSs were established, starting on the same day as Bevan’s English and Welsh service, but always separate established under separate legislation.

So I checked this with what Pauline Gregg says about the creation of the NHS in her The Welfare State: An Economic and Social History of Great Britain from 1945 to the Present Day (London: George G. Harrap & Co 1967).

She states

In 1942, during the War, the scope of health insurance had been considerably widened by the raising of the income limit for participation to £420 a year. But it still covered only about half the population and included neither specialist nor hospital service, neither dental, optical, nor hearing aid. Mental deficiency was isolated from other forms of illness. Medical practitioners were unevenly spread over the country – they had been before the War, but now their war-time service had too often disrupted their practices and left their surgeries to run down or suffer bomb damage.

Hospitals were at all stages of development. There were more than a thousand voluntary hospitals in England and Wales, varying from large general or specialist hospitals with first-class modern equipment and with medical schools attended by distinguished consultants, down to small local cottage hospitals. There were some 2000 more which had been founded by the local authorities or had developed from the sick ward of the old workhouse, ranging again through all types and degrees of excellence. Waiting-lists were long; most hospitals came out of the War under-equipped with staff and resources of all kinds; all needed painting, repairing, reorganising; some were cleaning up after bomb damage; most needed to reorient themselves before they turned from war casualties to peace-time commitments; all needed new equipment and new buildings. Other medical services were only too clearly the result of haphazard development. There were Medical Officers of Health employed by the local authorities, sanitary inspectors concerned with environmental health, medical inspectors of factories, nearly 2000 doctors on call to industry, as well as doctors privately appointed by firms to treat their staff. A school medical service provided for regular inspection of all children in public elementary and secondary schools; local authorities provided maternity and child care, health visiting, tuberculosis treatment, and other services for the poor, which varied widely from district to district. How many people there were of all ages and classes who were needing treatment but not getting it could only be guessed at.

Since it was clear that ad hoc improvement would no longer serve, a complete reshaping of the health and medical service marked the only line of advance. The general pattern it would take was indicated by Sir William Beveridge, who laid down his Report in 1942 the axiom that a health service must be universal, that the needs of the rich and poor are alike and should be met by the same means: ” restoration of a sick person to health is a duty of the state … prior to any other,” a “comprehensive national health service will ensure that for every citizen there is available whatever medical treatment he requires, in whatever form he requires it, domiciliary or institutional, general, specialist or consultant, and will ensure also the provision of dental, ophthalmic and surgical appliances, nursing and midwifery and rehabilitation after accidents.”

The Coalition Government accepted the Health Service Proposals of the Beveridge Report and prepared a White Paper, which it presented to Parliament in February 1944, saying the same thing as Beveridge in different words: “The government .. intend to establish a comprehensive health service for everybody in this country. They want to ensure that in future every man and woman and child can rely on getting all the advice and treatment and care which they may need in matters of personal health; that what they get shall be the best medical and other facilities available; that their getting these shall not depend on whether they can pay for them, or any other factor irrelevant to the real need – the real need being to bring the country’s full resources to bear upon reducing ill-health and promoting good health in all its citizens.” The Health Service, it said, should be a water, as the highways, available to all and all should pay through rates, taxes and social insurance.

Ernest Brown, a Liberal National, Minister of Health in the Coalition Government, was responsible for a first plan for a National Health Service which subordinated the general practitioner to the Medical Officer of Health and the local authorities, It was abandoned amid a professional storm. The scheme of Henry Willink, a later Minister of Health, was modelled on the White Paper, but was set aside with the defeat of Churchill’s Government in the 1945 Election. In the Labour Government the role of Minister of Health fell to Aneurin Bevan, who produced a scheme within a few months of Labour’s victory.

Pp. 39-51.

Churchill’s own attitude to the nascent NHS and the emergence of the later welfare state was ambivalent. In March 1943, for example, he gave a speech endorsing it. Gregg again says

He was “very much attracted to the idea” of a Four Year Plan of his own which included “national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave”, a national health service, a policy for full employment in which private and public enterprise both had a part to play, the rebuilding of towns and a housing programme, and a new Education Act. He envisaged “five or six large measures of a practical character”, but did not specify them, … (p. 25).

However, two years later after the Beveridge Report had become the official policy of the Labour party, Churchill’s tone was markedly hostile.

Coming to the microphone on June 4, 1945, he said: “My friends, I must tell you that a Socialist policy is abhorrent to British ideas of freedom … Socialism is in its essence an attack not only upon British enterprise, but upon the right of an ordinary man or woman to breathe freely without having a harsh, clumsy, tyrannical hand clapped across their mouths and nostrils. A free Parliament – look at that – a free Parliament is odious to the Socialist doctrinaire.” The Daily Express followed the next day with banner headlines: “Gestapo in Britain if Socialists Win”. (pp. 32-3)

So Mr Ellson is partly right, but only partly. There was some state and municipal healthcare provision, but it was a patchy and did not cover about half the population. It was a Coalition policy, which was sort of endorse by Churchill. However, its wholehearted embrace and execution was by the Labour party under Aneurin Bevan.

And its immense benefit and desirability was recognised by many traditionally staunch Tories at the time. One of my mother’s friends was herself a pillar of the local Conservative party, and the daughter of a pharmacist. She told my mother that at the 1945 elections her father gather his family together and told them that he had always voted Tory, but this time he was going to vote Labour, because the country needed the NHS. He explained that he served too many people, giving them their drugs on credit, because they couldn’t pay, not to vote for Labour and the NHS.

Now I think the Tories would like to roll state healthcare provision back to that of the pre-NHS level, where there is some minimal state provision, but much is carried out by private industry. The Daily Heil a few years ago was moaning about how the friendly societies were excluded from a role in the NHS. Like them, I think Mr Ellson has far too rosy a view of the situation before the NHS. I’ve blogged on here already accounts from doctors of that period on how badly much of the population were served before the NHS, especially those without health insurance.

Britain needed the NHS, and the party that was most passionately in favour of it was Labour. That some Tories were in favour of it, including Churchill on occasions, is true. But there were others in the party that were very firmly against, and it was ultimately Rab Butler in the Tories who reconciled them to the NHS. But that reconciliation is breaking down, and they are determined to privatise it anyway they can.

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7 Responses to “Nye Bevan and Nostalgia for the Era Before the NHS: My Response to a Critic”

  1. 61chrissterry Says:

    Reblogged this on 61chrissterry.

  2. billellson Says:

    Gregg appears to have muddled Brown and Willink. Conservative Henry Willink was the Minister of Health who published the 1944 white paper, which contains the things that the public value re the NHS. Gregg was plainly wrong in thinking that the 1944 scheme was ‘set aside’ and I can only presume that she had not actually read it.

    Churchill’s election broadcast of 4 June 1945 was utterly bonkers, but he was not talking about the NHS. As previosly stated the majority of hospitals were local government owned and run and covered the whole of England and Wales (Gregg’s claim of 1000 voluntary hospitals is absurd).

    Anecdotes about mother’s friends fathers are absurd. The NHS was in both the Conservative and Labour manifestos in 1945. The election was fought over whether industry should remain under state control or whether as the Conservatives proposed it should go back to its pre-war owners. People voted for it to remain under government control (nationalisation).

    The Friendly Societies were mutuals that provided benefits when members were ill or incapacitated, not providers of health care. Old age pensions and unemployment benefits were increased by Jim Griffiths’s 1946 National Insurance Act. MPs across the political spectrum argued for the Friendly Societies to be part of the system, but there was all party agreement on raising benefits and the Bill passed without division.

    The NHS was badly needed, but infant mortality had been in steep decline from the mid 1930s. This for a number of reasons, but local government provision of ante-natal clinics, health vistors etc across the country was an important factor. (Many such services stayed with local government until 1974.)

    As the Health Foundation’s analysis (Public attitudes
    to the NHS, Feb 2015) of the British Social Attitudes Survey makes clear, British people believe in an NHS free at the point of use, but are not that bothered about who actually delivers the services.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for your reply, Mr Ellson. Before we go any further, I’d like to know what sources you’re using for your assertions.

  3. Florence Says:

    I must have missed the response Billellson. I wonder where he has taken his information from, because it does not match my own family experience, whatever the social historians say. Maybe both sides of my family were “unlucky” to have lived in areas where the cover was non-existent.

    All I know is that one of my fathers’ brothers was taken ill, aged 7 in the 1920’s, and the family could not afford a doctor, but by the time they realised how ill he was, his appendix had already burst. I think he was taken into a charitable (church?) hospital, but it took nearly a week for him to die horribly in agony from peritonitis. They never got over the loss of a child, especially when they also had a lot of guilt about delaying because of “the cost of the doctor”.

    My mother’s family at the same time, were members of the “Saturday Club” where each family paid 6d a week (on Saturday) which paid for a doctor to visit. My mother was struck down with rheumatic fever, and the dr went to her home and diagnosed it, again, she must have been 7, so that was the 1930′ s. They couldn’t afford hospital care, so she was nursed at home by her mother & neighbours for over 6 month, while she was rigid and paralysed.

    These were the experiences of the working class before the NHS, and like Harry Price, I can say that the experience haunted both families. I can see the gleam in the eyes of the vultures circling the NHS, and I fear for those who do not have this direct link to the pre-NHS days, knowing that 20 million in the UK already live in poverty, and that a pay per visit system would be intolerable in the 6th richest country, with a health service with funding that is a model that was held up to other countries to follow. However that was the preferred system for both Letwin and Hunt in their publications calling for the end of the NHS 20 years apart, so it seems there has long been continuity and ambition to effectively remove the universal system from the poor. So when the effects of long term hunger and poverty take hold, there will be little between any of us and that early grave, except the ability to pay with money you don’t have.

    One final point,(despite the length of this reply, sorry) that Billelleson stated “but nobody was expected to sell their house.”. That was for me the one item that gave his words a hollow ring. Nobody in the working class actually owned their houses. To pay even the Dr’s fee they would have to sell an item of furniture or clothing, or pawn a wedding ring. There were no heirlooms, after all, my great grand-dad died in the workhouse!

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, very much for that reply, Florence. I’m sorry your husband’s brother died in such horrible circumstances. My mother also remembers from her childhood her own mother collecting money for the district nurse.

  4. billellson Says:

    The 1944 white paper is on the Socialist Health Association (SHA) website here: http://www.sochealth.co.uk/national-health-service/the-sma-and-the-foundation-of-the-national-health-service-dr-leslie-hilliard-1980/a-national-health-service/

    The Beveridge Report is also available on the SHA website as are many other original documents.

    Transcript of Churchill’s 21 March 1943 broadcast is here: http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1943/1943-03-21a.html

    Churchill’s election broadcast was set in the next day’s Times (as was Attlee’s well thought out and professional broadcast in response. (Contrary to modern myth Attlee was a superb communicator completely at home on both radio and television) (Most public libraries offer free remote access to The Times Archive)

    20th Century party manifestos are available in full on a number of websites and are not hard to find.

    Hansard 1803 – 2005 is available here: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/

    Florence, my comment ‘nobody was expected to sell their house’ was in regard of those who were expected to pay, not the poor who were treated for free. From the late 1920 onwards local government increased and improved health provision – the London County Council were the largest health care provider pre-NHS.

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