Churchill on Healthcare

by Richard Langworth on 19 October 2009

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 Churchill 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.”)

The Churchill quotation you sent is not from 1948, but taken from his tribute to the Royal College of Physicians on 2 March 1944. (Complete text available from this website by email.)

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.

For a bone of contention about the paragraph above, see Part 2 of this discussion.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard M. Langworth January 14, 2014 at 10:19

Sorry, but I did not say “Socialism bad, Capitalism good,” though I did quote others. My own words were restricted to recounting the degree of state control in Britain, then and now, to refute the reader’s statement that there is less now than in the postwar Labour heyday. The argument that “most citizens are not competent” is of course a long-running assumption of elitists and Statists. Somehow, our ancestors managed for a few hundred years.

feloneouscat January 14, 2014 at 10:02

“The West’s problem is creeping socialism.”

Sorry, you are making a value judgement. “Socialism bad, Capitalism good” to be frank, when, to be fair, it is nigh impossible for a country to be pure socialist or pure capitalist (see the Gilded Age and failing infrastructure, soup lines, high infant mortality, etc.).

Most countries socialize their war infrastructure. They also create forced rationing (what happened to letting the market decide?). The argument that Churchill was against socialism is a silly one. He was only for the socialism that he thought was appropriate. No doubt he did not consider it socialism.

Also you fail to elaborate on “competence of the citizen to manage his own needs”. I may be wrong, but I suspect when he said this many corporations provided some form of pension plan. In the United States, aside from state and federal jobs, these have all but vanished. In their place are poorly managed DIY “retirement accounts”. Most citizens are, in fact, not competent to manage retirement – although many may brag that they are clever and skillful, the reality is quite different.

Retirement is also part of the safety net and I suspect Churchill would be horrified how many supposedly first world countries maltreat the elderly. To quote Dr. Arnn it is because it devolves into that which is materialist and dehumanizing.

Richard M. Langworth October 29, 2013 at 16:37

Sorry, but that’s not very well considered. Many would say the British state, like the American, is much larger in relation to the private sector than it was when Churchill retired. At the high tide of Labour socialism, 1951, 20% of Britain’s economy had been socialized. American government is spending close to 25% of GDP, the national debt equal to or exceeding GDP. Neither represents pure socialism, in the sense of government owning ALL means of production, which is common only to communist countries. Even there it’s not complete. China calls its system “market socialism,” whatever that is. Creeping capitalism, perhaps. The West’s problem is creeping socialism. It does not matter who holds the title to a property, like an insurance company; it matters who gets to say what is done with it. Quoting Dr. Arnn:

“Churchill’s argument: socialism is like Nazism and communism in its principles: materialist and dehumanizing. In operation, it is more moderate, at first. But it builds a bureaucracy that becomes a weight in society; it becomes a new form of aristocracy, he says explicitly, worse than the old form.

“One of questions Churchill had to face was: if you are for the social safety net, including health care, how do you prevent that from building a society of ‘drones’ (his word), ultimately dominated by a bureaucratic elite? In other words, the safety net is good, necessary, and can be made to work. but socialism destroys its working because it sets out, in principle, to destroy and supersede it.

“He answered that question in many ways: the social safety net done rightly is simple justice; without it the ‘people will set their faces like flint against the money power’; a constitution should protect the people against this tendency. A constitutional arrangement begins with the principles of individual rights including property rights, self-responsibility, the sovereignty and responsibility of the citizen, and the competence of the citizen to manage his own needs (except in extraordinary circumstances) and the governance of his country.

“One may look at today’s bureaucratic government in light of these criteria. What is its principle? Does it in fact operate to waste resources and to overcome the independence and sovereignty of the people? Churchill is not here to weigh these facts and make the judgments. We are. But from him we can learn the criteria.”

Oliver October 29, 2013 at 09:30

“Churchill con­sid­ered socialism—a far milder form than we know today—incompatible with human lib­erty”

Sorry that’s nonsense. The socialism that Churchill railed against was a far STRONGER version, with very high taxes, and things like state controlled industry. He would have regarded the Democrats as ‘centre-right’, compared to the socialist parties of the 20th century, with their commitments to nationalised industry and very high tax rates.

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