Gotcher in the Nye: Winston Churchill on the National Health

Gotcher in the Nye: Winston Churchill on the National Health

Enemy of health

Win­ston Churchill, the con­ve­nient vil­lain in many recent his­tor­i­cal accounts, has a new role. He’s now the stead­fast oppo­nent of Britain’s Nation­al Health Ser­vice (NHS), found­ed by Nye Bevan in 1948.

Churchill, goes the refrain, didn’t care about the health of Britons. (As WSC replied to a Bevan rant in 1944: “I should think it was hard­ly pos­si­ble to state the oppo­site of the truth with more precision.”)

The estimable Robert Colville punc­tured this non­sense in The Times (Lon­don) on March 17th. His high­ly read­able piece is enti­tled, “Even with­out Nye, the cult of the NHS is verg­ing on pathological.”

The oper­a­tive occa­sion was a new pro­duc­tion by Britain’s Roy­al Nation­al The­atre. What’s a cor­rect-think­ing pro­duc­er to offer? “After con­sid­er­ing and reject­ing Che! The Musi­cal and Johnson’s Infer­no,” Colville writes, “you might hit on the idea of a three-hour play about how Nye Bevan sin­gle-hand­ed­ly won the war, invent­ed the NHS and brought civil­i­sa­tion to Britain. Star­ring Michael Sheen. And then you’d prob­a­bly scrap the idea for being past the point of parody.”

But no. It’s for real: “The cen­tral the­sis of Nye, to quote Sheen’s per­ora­tion, is that found­ing the NHS was ‘the most civilised step any coun­try has ever taken’—despite the best efforts of Win­ston Churchill and the British Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion.” The BMA maybe—but not Win­ston Churchill.

To the Editors of The Times

One shouldn’t write let­ters to edi­tors. They have the edi­to­r­i­al pow­er to skew what you say and make you look sil­ly. How­ev­er, urged by a promi­nent British Churchillian, I wrote in praise, not condemnation:

Robert Colville is right to deplore the skewed con­cepts that ren­der Win­ston Churchill a diehard oppo­nent of British Nation­al Health. As Dr. Nicholas Bosan­quet and Andrew Halden­by com­pre­hen­sive­ly explain, Churchill’s con­cern for the health of Britons extends from 1945 back through both World Wars to his Lib­er­al reform years 1906-10—when Nye Bevan was still in short trousers. I will not clut­ter your columns with hyper­links, but any­one inter­est­ed may search for ‘Bosan­quet Churchill and Health Issues’ on any web brows­er and learn the truth.

Big mis­take. Even though I didn’t pro­vide a link—a real no-no in Let­ters to the Editor—my British friend point­ed out that this was the wrong approach:

They’ll come back to you to ask for your own opin­ion, as com­pa­ny pol­i­cy is to not send peo­ple to oth­er web­sites. The killer line you want is that Churchill invent­ed the phrase “nation­al health pol­i­cy.” This is what you should lead with—and that WSC appoint­ed Bev­eridge. [Churchill com­mis­sioned the Bev­eridge Report, which rec­om­mend­ed a nation­al health ser­vice in 1942.]

The Times didn’t both­er ask­ing me to revise, so it was a lost cause. How­ev­er, the hand­ful of read­ers who actu­al­ly care may like to know that Churchill advo­cat­ed nation­al health poli­cies for half a century.

Start by read­ing that hyper­link! It’s a fine arti­cle by Dr. Bosan­quet and Mr. Halden­by: “Churchill and Health Issues: The Para­dox of Coin­ci­den­tal Suc­cess.” (Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, 2023.)

While Nye was in short pants

Nye Bevan was push­ing ten when Win­ston Churchill began argu­ing for a Nation­al Health Pol­i­cy. In this, Churchill was the “faith­ful lieu­tenant” of David Lloyd George. Togeth­er they criss-crossed the coun­try demand­ing, among oth­er things, mas­sive reforms in pub­lic health.
In 1911, they part­ly suc­ceed­ed. Bosan­quet and Halden­by write: “The Nation­al Insur­ance Bill was intro­duced by Lloyd George on 4 May 1911….. [Churchill,] many years lat­er, paid trib­ute to Lloyd George’s lead­er­ship,” but this applies to Churchill too:
His warm heart was stirred by the many per­ils which beset the cot­tage homes; the health of the bread-win­ner, the fate of his wid­ow, the nour­ish­ment and upbring­ing of his chil­dren, the mea­gre and hap­haz­ard pro­vi­sion of med­ical treat­ment and sana­to­ria, and the lack of any orga­nized acces­si­ble med­ical ser­vice, of a kind wor­thy of the age, from which the mass of wage earn­ers and the poor suf­fered. (WSC, Eulo­gy to Lloyd George, House of Com­mons, 28 March 1945.)

Health concerns in war and peace

Bosan­quet and Halden­by com­pre­hen­sive­ly reviewed Churchill’s record from those begin­nings. In the trench­es dur­ing the First World War, WSC launched a suc­cess­ful war against lice. A year lat­er as Min­is­ter of Muni­tions, he asked his chief med­ical offi­cer for “a hand­book sum­ma­riz­ing the wel­fare and health issues orga­nized by the Ministry.”

As Min­is­ter of War (1919-20), Churchill orga­nized a com­mit­tee inquir­ing into treat­ment of shell-shock. As Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer (1924-29), Churchill intro­duced wid­ows’ and orphans’ pen­sions. In 1929 the Local Gov­ern­ment Act

trans­ferred func­tions of Poor Law Guardians and hos­pi­tals to local gov­ern­ment…. The 1929 Labour Gov­ern­ment took cred­it, but the effec­tive improve­ments were owed Churchill and Min­is­ter of Health Neville Cham­ber­lain. The munic­i­pal hos­pi­tals were an impor­tant part of the Emer­gency Hos­pi­tal Ser­vice, which began coor­di­na­tion with vol­un­tary hos­pi­tals in 1940….

In fact, spend­ing was not reduced dur­ing Chamberlain’s and Churchill’s tenure, and more health issues were addressed. Three hun­dred more ante-natal clin­ics and 440 more Infant Wel­fare Cen­tres were opened. The num­ber of prac­tic­ing mid­wives increased by 860. The expan­sion of these local ser­vices, main­ly staffed by sin­gle women on low salaries, was a remark­able gain to health—at low cost.

“The spacious domain of public health”

Churchill’s dom­i­nat­ing task from 1940 was win­ning the war. Yet he found time to com­mis­sion the 1942 Bev­eridge Report on social insur­ance. He then pro­posed a four-year plan for post­war recon­struc­tion, includ­ing what he called “the spa­cious domain of pub­lic health…” On 21 March 1943 he broad­cast on the BBC:

I was brought up on the max­im of Lord Bea­cons­field which my father was always repeat­ing: “Health and the laws of health.” We must estab­lish on broad and sol­id foun­da­tions a Nation­al Health Ser­vice. Here let me say there is no fin­er invest­ment in any com­mu­ni­ty than putting milk into babies. Healthy cit­i­zens are the great­est asset any coun­try can have.

In 1943, Bosan­quet and Halden­by write, Churchill appoint­ed the social reformer Sir Hen­ry Will­ink Min­is­ter of Health. Will­ink was asked to pro­duce a Health Ser­vice White Paper and draft bill…. Churchill was deter­mined. “The doc­tors aren’t going to dic­tate [the future law] to the coun­try,” he told Moran, “they tried that with Lloyd George.”

Bevan in jovial form at Park Hos­pi­tal, Davy­hulme, near Man­ches­ter, on the first day of the Nation­al Health Ser­vice, 5 July 1948. (Uni­ver­si­ty of Liv­er­pool, Cre­ative Commons)

After the July 1945 elec­tion, nation­al health pol­i­cy fell to Labour and to Nye Bevan. “In oth­er words,” writes Robert Colville, “we owe to Bevan not the Nation­al Health Ser­vice but this Nation­al Health Service—the one that turned the exist­ing pro­fu­sion of pro­vi­sion into some­thing reg­i­ment­ed, stan­dard­ised, cen­tralised and nationalised.”

Whether this Nation­al Health Ser­vice is the opti­mum arrange­ment is the busi­ness of Britons, not Churchill his­to­ri­ans. Our job is to uncov­er the truth, The truth is that for fifty years, Churchill was con­cerned with and imple­ment­ed nation­al health policies.

“A squalid nuisance”

The play Nye appar­ent­ly also gives Bevan more cred­it than he deserves for his record in the Sec­ond World War. Robert Colville con­tin­ues: “Bevan’s role in per­suad­ing Amer­i­ca to enter the war is gross­ly overblown; his enthu­si­asm for Sovi­et Rus­sia com­plete­ly unmentioned.”

If help­ing in the war is what Nye claims, the Nation­al The­atre is going well over the top. Aneurin Bevan was thorn in the side of the wartime gov­ern­ment. Not only of Churchill, but Bevan’s own par­ty leader, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Clement Attlee. Colville quotes John Bew’s fine biog­ra­phy of Attlee, Cit­i­zen Clem. “Bevan’s index entry starts with, “con­tin­u­al­ly tries to under­mine Attlee and his sup­port­ers,” and goes on from there.” Bevan railed at both, say­ing in 1941 that WSC deserved “a good kick” for his lead­er­ship. In his news­pa­per, the Tri­bune, Bevan mount­ed attack after attack. But nobody who mat­tered took him very seriously.

Clement Attlee saw him only as an “irri­tant,” and this seems also to have been Churchill’s view: “Unless the Rt. Hon. Gen­tle­man changes his pol­i­cy and meth­ods and moves with­out the slight­est delay,” Churchill said in 1944, “he will be as great a curse to this coun­try in time of peace, as he was a squalid nui­sance in time of war.” (House of Com­mons, 6 Decem­ber 1945.)
For many years Sir Winston’s daugh­ter Lady Soames chaired the Nation­al The­atre Board of Trustees. On the whole I’m rather glad she isn’t here to be con­front­ed by the grand institution’s lat­est production.

Further reading

“Win­ston Churchill on Health Care: ‘The Inher­i­tance of All,'” 2013.

“Churchill on Health Care: An Ongo­ing Dis­cus­sion,” 2013

“McKinstry’s Churchill and Attlee: A Van­ished Age of Polit­i­cal Respect,” 2019.

“Bevan and Trump’s ‘Ver­min’ Crack: Noth­ing New Except the Reac­tion,” 2023.

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