“This is the biggest single experiment in social service that the world has ever seen undertaken.” Aneurin Bevan, 7 October 1948, cited in Timmins N ed (2008) Rejuvenate or retire: Views of the NHS at 60. Nuffield Trust.
There are many complicated reasons why Labour, and not the Conservatives and Churchill the Great War Hero, won the 1945 general election but one significant reason was that the Labour Party was more in touch with the zeitgeist ‘the spirit of the time’.
War weariness, hope for a better future, a collective effort to win the war with the classes mixing more, and a realisation that increased state control would not lead to communist revolution led many to vote Labour due to the party’s public support of the Beveridge Report.
In 1942 Sir William Beveridge published Social Insurance and Allied Services (The Beveridge Report) in which he laid out a comprehensive plan for the future of Britain. The ‘five giants’ of poverty were to be tackled by the introduction of a centrally planned welfare state which would reform the piecemeal welfare legislation of the previous decades.
The five giants and their ‘cures’ included:
- Want would be tackled by a comprehensive range of benefits.
- Idleness through full employment including the use of public work schemes
- Squalor by the building of council houses
- Ignorance through what became the 1944 Butler Education Act
- Disease through the creation of a National Health Service.
A white paper ‘A National Health Service’ was published in 1944 under the wartime coalition but it was introduced under the postwar Labour Government and the outstanding efforts of the Minister for Health Aneurin (Nye) Bevan.
Despite opposition by the British Medical Association (BMA), Aneurin Bevan overcame this by ‘stuffing their mouths with gold’ and allowing NHS consultants to also see private patients and GPs to remain self-employed.
The National Service Act was published in 1946 and implemented on 5 July 1948, following the official unveiling at Park Hospital in Manchester.
This was no mean feat, a complex system of private, charity, local authority and ex-poor law hospitals were incorporated into the NHS, providing for the first-time a universal right to access free health care at the point of need without the stigma of charity.
It is interesting to note that Britain was also bankrupt in 1947 due to the cost of repaying the war loans and a lack of capital. However the American Government, fearful of the spreading influence of communism within Europe, recognised that it gained in popularity in times of despair and decided on a two-fold policy of ‘containment’. Britain benefitted from the generous Marshall Aid used to help rebuild Europe. It may have aimed to stop the spread of communism but it helped fund the foundation of the British Welfare State including the foundation of the NHS.
Problems soon arose within the NHS. It cost much more than expected and the Korean War led to the introduction of charges to see dentists and for prescriptions. Likewise, there was a shortage of nurses and beds from the earliest days.
However, the NHS still provides a right to all to access the health care they require free of charge. That’s something worth celebrating.
Happy Birthday to the NHS.
An excellent timeline of the NHS History can be found on