The Labour Party want us to believe that they deserve all the credit, constantly boasting that Nye Bevan was the sole architect of the NHS. But Labour only completed work that had been begun by a Conservative Health Minister, adding a few socialist frills of their own. Alistair Lexden explained what happened back in the 1940s in a speech during a Lords debate held on 30 November to mark the 75th anniversary of the NHS.
Cinemagoers in the 1940s learnt much about public affairs from the widely admired Pathé News, which was shown before the main film. In March 1944 audiences who saw that month’s Pathé News heard the following words from their Minister for Health about the formation of a National Health Service: “Whatever your income, if you want to use this service—and no one is going to try to make you, unless you want to—there’ll be no charge for treatment. The National Health Service will include family doctors whom you can choose for yourselves, and who will attend you in your own homes when this is necessary.”
The clipped, kindly, authoritative voice continued: “It’ll cover any medicines you may need, specialist advice, and of course hospital treatment whatever the illness, special care for mothers and children, and a lot of other things besides. In fact, every kind of advice and treatment you may need… We’re out to improve the health of every family and the whole nation. If we cut out the money worries which illness brings, then there’d be no reason to put off getting advice and treatment.”
That is how the nation heard that it could look forward to the provision of comprehensive health services, free at the point of use, from which it was to benefit so profoundly in the years that lay ahead. The voice from which it heard about these radical reform plans was that of Sir Henry Willink, the Conservative Health Minister in Churchill’s wartime coalition.
It fell to Willink to work out how to achieve this promised transformation of health care in Britain. He set about the task in a spirit of consensus, telling Pathé News viewers: “It’s not a cut and dried scheme. These proposals are for discussion in Parliament, and we want them talked about by everyone concerned, and you, everyone in this audience, are very much concerned."
The nearer the scheme came to fruition, the more concerned the British Medical Association grew about the effect it would have on their members’ private practice. Willink made a number of concessions to the BMA, agreeing that doctors would not, as had originally been envisaged, be grouped as salaried employees into health centres under local authority control.
This concession had far-reaching results, which the Labour Party too had to accept when it found itself in charge of the legislation that created the NHS after 1945.
Today Sir Henry Williink is almost entirely forgotten, his contribution to building a national health service unsung.
Willink was a calm, modest, intellectual figure, later master of a Cambridge college, who had no taste for rough party politics, totally unlike the brilliant, flamboyant, combative Nye Bevan, who denounced the Tories as “lower than vermin” when the NHS was officially launched in July 1948.
By the way, younger elements in the Conservative Party responded by forming Vermin Clubs, with little membership badges featuring ugly creatures. Miss Margaret Roberts, later Mrs Margaret Thatcher, had quite a collection of these badges.
Since Bevan carried the legislation through Parliament, it would be absurd to question his central role. But neither he nor the Labour Party deserve to monopolise the credit for the building of the NHS.
Bevan’s biographer, Dr John Campbell, refers to “the long and cumulative process by which the Service came into existence in 1948…There can be no doubt that some form of National Health Service would have come into being after 1945 whoever had won the General Election.”
The Tories, who made a firm commitment to finish Willink’s work in their 1945 manifesto, made a cardinal political error as Bevan’s great NHS Bill was going through the Commons. Willink moved a hostile amendment, opposing the nationalising of all hospitals, voluntary and municipal.
This enabled Labour, in the rough and tumble of party politics, to portray the Conservatives as opposed in principle to the NHS, which was of course totally untrue.
Perhaps on the 75th anniversary of the NHS this year, it might be appropriate to remember Henry Willink as well as Nye Bevan.
Willink stood for consensus; Bevan for conflict. Could it be that, over the last 75 years, the NHS would have benefited from a little more of Willink’s consensus and a little less of Bevan’s party strife?
Would progress have been easier to achieve if politicians of all parties had worked together, in full partnership with health professionals, in that spirit of national unity, embodied in Churchill’s wartime coalition, from which our NHS emanates?