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Labour firebrand: Nye Bevan delivering the famous 1948 Manchester speech in which he described the Tories as "lower than vermin" (Getty Images, courtesy of I.B. Tauris)

The post-war Labour government, 1945-51, now seems as remote as the Middle Ages. Its vast programme of nationalisation, its pride and boast, was entirely dismantled by Margaret Thatcher, without a single influential voice being raised in its defence. Its wisest action, itself a negative, was to give India its freedom, thereby sparing the nation much misery and ultimate shame, and it is for this that Attlee, whose decision it was, will be chiefly remembered.

But there is one exception to this story of vacuity. The National Health Service, after nearly three quarters of a century, remains, essentially unchanged, an enduring monument to this harassed and often ramshackle government. When Labour took office, in July 1945, nothing had been done, by way of preparation, for this enormous and complex piece of legislation which transformed the way in which virtually the entire nation was nursed and doctored. Yet the NHS was created with all deliberate speed, and in less than three years, by the end of 1948, it was in operation. By way of comparison, look what has happened—or not happened—to Obama-care in the US, which after six years is still largely on paper.


The man who brought about this miracle (for so it looks, in retrospect) was Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960), the Welsh miner MP. The extraordinary thing is that Attlee, in recognition of his achievement, failed to promote him, when the death of Stafford Cripps left the Treasury vacant. Instead Bevin was sidelined into the Ministry of Labour, which meant he had to spend his time arguing with trade-union officials, a species of humanity he detested. Instead, the Exchequer was given to Hugh Gaitskell, a prissy Wykehamist who earlier had covered the government in ridicule by boasting he only ran six inches of water into his bath to save fuel. Why Attlee made this calamitous mistake is a mystery: as a rule his handling of colleagues was deft. Gaitskell was a divisive figure who insisted not just on beating opponents within the party but forcing them to admit they were wrong. An explosion with Bevan was inevitable, and it came with Gaitskell’s 1951 rearmament budget, which hugely increased defence spending to equip British forces to fight the Korean War, at the expense (amid other welfare recipients) of the new NHS.

The result was the resignation of Bevan, together with two colleagues, Harold Wilson, in the Cabinet at the Board of Trade, and John Freeman, Under-Secretary at Supply. Freeman was a key figure for at Supply he realised that Gaitskell’s calculations would not work but would merely lead to inflation. As Harold Wilson put it: “Night after night, I listened to John trying to teach Nye the principles of Bevanism.” Attlee was ill at the time, and Herbert Morrison in charge of the government. He tried to tempt Freeman into withdrawing his resignation by offering him Wilson’s place in the Cabinet, but met with a contemptuous refusal. The upshot was a deep split in the government, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the movement as a whole, the loss of the 1951 election, and Labour’s banishment to impotence for the notorious “Thirteen Wasted Years”.

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Bill Ellson
March 31st, 2015
5:03 PM
"The National Health Service, after nearly three quarters of a century, remains, essentially unchanged, an enduring monument to this harassed and often ramshackle government. When Labour took office, in July 1945, nothing had been done, by way of preparation, for this enormous and complex piece of legislation which transformed the way in which virtually the entire nation was nursed and doctored." What utter nonsense. After the Beveridge Report was published in 1942 there was intense discussion within and without government. On 21 Mar 1943 Churchill made his 'After the War' broadcast which gave us the phrase 'Cradle to the Grave' and in 1944 Minister of Health conservative Henry Willink published his white paper 'A National Health Service'. The white paper contains the things that the public still value today about the NHS.

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