The NHS PR machine is doing a brilliant job celebrating its 70th birthday. Across broadcast, print and social media everyone is celebrating the amazing work done by doctors, nurses and their support teams in delivering first class care, free at the point of use, 365 days a year. It is powerful, emotional and heart-warming stuff and nothing less than the NHS deserves.
Whilst the NHS and its staff are wonderfully popular and loved, the same cannot be said for politicians. Yet it was very much a political act that led to the foundation of the NHS. It was a Labour landslide electoral victory in 1945 that led to the NHS being created on the 5th July 1948. There had been talk of healthcare reform in the corridors of power for decades before but nothing happened until the politics was right.
Labour had political momentum and clout and chose to appoint one of its big-hitters, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan as Minister of Health. Normally the role went to political minnows but with a strong political credibility Bevan was able to take on the vested interests who opposed Labour’s preferred approach. It is worth remembering that the British Medical Association at the time wanted to have a system funded by insurance. The debate got a little bit heated and a letter in the BMA journal described Bevan as a “complete and uncontrolled dictator.” Fear that insurance charges might later be introduced was thought to have led to a rush of patients hurrying to the NHS’s waiting rooms, keen to get the free treatment they needed before it was taken away. Bevan later said that his opponents campaigns had helped to cement the popularity of his creation.
Bevan wasn’t afraid to pull out all the stops to get his proposal through. He needed to buy off doctors to keep them onside. General Practitioners were given more money and allowed to keep their private practices. In Bevan’s own words he “stuffed their mouths with gold.”
Whilst we rightly celebrate the hard working staff that make the NHS what it is today. Spare a thought for the politicians who made it happen in the first place. Politicians will never be as popular as doctors and nurses but their work and the political process that appoints them, can, when things go well, drive real positive change in our society which lasts for decades.
Steven Gauge is a Senior Consultant at PLMR and author of “The Little Book of Politics” due to be published by Summersdale Publishing on the 12th July 2018.