I am hoping you can place in context a statement by Winston Churchill, which has been offered to show that he would support current U.S. heath care reform proposals. My own Catholic parish recently published the aforementioned statement in its weekly bulletin.
What Would Winnie Do? Here’s an interesting quote. It’s from conservative British Prime Minister Winston Churchill explaining his view on health care and government in 1948: “The discoveries of healing science must be the inheritance of all. That is clear: Disease must be attacked, whether it occurs in the poorest or the richest man or woman simply on the ground that it is the enemy; and it must be attacked just in the sane way as the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humblest cottage as readily as to the most important mansion….Our policy is to create a national health service in order to ensure that everybody in the country, irrespective of means, age, sex, or occupation, shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.”
The heading and quotation imply that we Catholics should support national health care. Lacking the rhetorical context in which the statement was made and given, and knowledge of conditions existing in Britain sixty years ago, I am wondering: what was Churchill’s actual position on national healthcare? —J.R., Chicago
We tend to deprecate articles suggesting that Churchill would do this or that about modern situations. His daughter always likes to ask people who say such things: “How do you know?” The answer is, of course, that none of us know. (What we do know is that, except when very young, he hated that nickname “Winnie.”)
You will have to decide whether the excerpts joined together in your church bulletin are in context. (I have inserted the break.) You are right to suggest that conditions in Britain in 1944 were different (more critical health-wise) than conditions in the USA in 2009. Also, in 1944, the words “national health service” did not necessarily mean what the Labour government created after the war. Nor do they define what is proposed in America. President Obama and his supporters are not proposing a British National Health Service. The argument is over whether what they propose might lead to problems similar to the British system.
Without question Churchill believed that new medical discoveries are “the inheritance of all.” But that leaves a fairly wide array of options. On 3 July 1945, too late to affect the general election (which came two days later), he issued a Cabinet Paper calling on his colleagues to move forward on legislation or National Insurance and a National Health Service. What they would have come up with we’ll never know, since the Conservative Party lost big, and the Labour Party took over and created their own plan. But consider that “National Insurance” to some people means an alternative to “National Health Service,” in which the citizen might have, for example, a medical savings account accruing to the individual through regular, required deposits from paychecks, like a bank account. The miracle of compound interest is a great thing.
It seems evident that Churchill did not oppose the Labour Party’s National Health Service, though he was not among its advocates. In the beginning everything was to be free, of course. When, inevitably, costs began to rise, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced charges for spectacles and dentures, he protested the heavy government expenditures in the House of Commons (10 April 1951), suggesting that other economies should have been made to accommodate the increases:
Those who hold that taxation is an evil must recognize that it falls upon this country in a most grievous manner at the present time, continually burdening the mass of the nation and continually clogging—or, at any rate, hampering our efforts. There is to be an increase of taxation. I am not at all concerned today to examine even cursorily the detailed proposals which the Chancellor has made, but taxation is to be increased; it is to be heavier still. Naturally, many people will feel that the issue should be argued out very tensely as to whether other economies in Government expenditure might not have relieved us from the need of applying new burdens and new taxation. Of course, we know the times are difficult.
…So in 1951, as we can see, Churchill was arguing for decreased government expenditures instead of higher taxes on the citizenry as the best approach to the problem. In 1945, it had seemed much easier of solution.
Churchill considered socialism—a far milder form than we know today—incompatible with human liberty, and sought a way of ameliorating the complaints of the poor (or relatively poor) without confiscating the wealth of those who produce it. To this end you may be interested in reading the comments on this matter by Larry Arnn in our the autumn 2009 Q&A column Finest Hour 144: 11). If you are not a Churchill Centre member, Arnn’s remarks are available from this website by email.