The NHS - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 5th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:37 pm, 5th July 2018

It is an immense pleasure to follow my favourite Bishop. Fortunately, none of the others are here to learn that I care for them less.

I would like to offer a few reflections on the historical background to this important debate, introduced so memorably by the noble Lord, Lord Darzi. I am a historian and a few words about what happened in the 1940s would perhaps not come amiss. I should say at the outset that I take a view very different from that of the noble Lord, Lord Pendry.

In this very month 74 years ago, the then Minister of Health broadcast a message of historic importance to the nation about the Government’s plans for a national health service. He said:

“Whatever your income, if you want to use the service … there’ll be no charge for treatment. The National Health Service will include family doctors whom you choose for yourselves, and who will attend you in your … homes when this is necessary. It’ll cover any medicines you may need, specialist advice, and of course hospital treatment whatever the illness”.

It was with these words in July 1944 that Henry Willink, the Conservative Minister of Health in Churchill’s wartime coalition, heralded a new era in which comprehensive health services would be available to all, free at the point of use. It would be the fulfilment of the vision that Neville Chamberlain, a formidable Health Minister in the 1920s and the greatest of all Tory social reformers, had hoped would one day be accomplished.

Willink set to work. The British Medical Association swiftly assumed the role that was to become so familiar to British politicians over the years, putting the self-interest of its members before all other considerations. Willink was an able but emollient man. He made many concessions to the BMA, though without weakening the Tory commitment to the principles of universality and free delivery of services underlined in the 1945 Conservative election manifesto.

Today, no one remembers Henry Willink, who gave up politics in 1948 to become the master of a Cambridge college, while enduring fame is attached to his successor. Nye Bevan fought the BMA with vigour and panache, which Willink would never have done. He too made significant concessions but his ferocious public rows with the BMA dominated the headlines, while his concessions attracted much less notice. This worked hugely to Bevan’s advantage. As his perceptive biographer, the leading historian Dr John Campbell, has observed,

“it was politically useful to Bevan that the BMA made such a fuss. It seems clear that Bevan privately welcomed, if he did not positively encourage, the BMA’s help in making the NHS appear a more socialist measure than it really was”.

There was not a great deal in Bevan’s plans that the Tories found wholly objectionable; after all, they shared the same objectives. But Bevan, consummate party politician that he was, exploited the Tories’ decision to oppose the complete nationalisation of hospitals. He relished blackening their name as the enemies of a great national reform. It was on the evening before the NHS came into operation that he made his notorious speech denouncing them as “lower than vermin”.

One of the great tragedies, perhaps, of the fierce partisan wrangling that took place over the structure of the NHS is that no one thought about its cost, even in Whitehall. Finance was not discussed as the legislation went through Parliament. As a result of this omission, politicians of both parties would be plunged into recurrent funding crises over the next 70 years. Bevan’s achievement was prodigious. Nevertheless, as John Campbell has pointed out,

“it must be said that too much can be claimed for him, and in Labour mythology often is”.

There was wide cross-party support for the NHS at its inception, just as there is today on its 70th birthday. It is perhaps a time for remembering Sir Henry Willink, as well as the great Nye Bevan.