What resistance was there to the formation of the NHS?

By Lily Foster

While there are different views on specifics, the NHS now has strong cross-party support and is very popular with public. Nigel Lawson famously said "the closest thing the English have to a religion" and David Cameron spoke passionately about it.  But it was not like this. There was a fiece battle to get it established.In 1946 the Doctors voted 10:1 against.

Churchill's Tories voted against the formation of the NHS 21 times before the act was passed, including both the Second and Third reading. Churchill sincerely believed that the NHS was a"first step to turn Britain into a National Socialist economy." To compare the NHS to Nazism in 1946 shows the extremity of vies at the time.

Despite the apparent consensus, opposition to the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS) existed. Many groups, including charities, churches and local authorities didn't want the government taking control of hospitals. There was a particularly bitter battle with the London County Council over the control of hospitals in the capital. Even more serious was the opposition of doctors who disliked the idea of becoming employees of the state. Doctors were in an extremely powerful position, as without them the National Health Service (NHS) could not operate, and the government was forced to make a number of compromises. General Practitioner (GP) surgeries remained private businesses that could be bought and sold, and the NHS effectively gave these practices contracts to provide health care. Only the most senior doctors in hospitals (consultants) were allowed to continue private treatment. Similar compromises were worked out with dentists. Aneurin Bevan conceded these points in order to make the NHS work, but he was not happy with them. In a very famous speech Bevan made this very clear by stating that his Tory opponents were "lower than vermin."

That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation. Now the Tories are pouring out money in propaganda of all sorts and are hoping by this organised sustained mass suggestion to eradicate from our minds all memory of what we went through. But, I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying now. Do not listen to the seductions of Lord Woolton. He is a very good salesman. If you are selling shoddy stuff you have to be a good salesman. But I warn you they have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse than they were.

Speech on 3 July 1948 at the Bellevue Hotel, on eve of the entry into force of the National Health Service.

Once Bevan had published his Bill on the health service in 1946, one former chairman of the BMA described Bevan's proposals in the following terms:

"I have examined the Bill and it looks to me uncommonly like the first step, and a big one, to national socialism as practised in Germany.

The medical service there was early put under the dictatorship of a "medical fuhrer" The Bill will establish the minister for health in that capacity."

Comparing a politician to Hitler (in 1946!!) shows how strongly the BMA felt about the issue and how widespread opposition was from Doctors:

Between 1946 and its introduction in 1948, the British Medical Association (BMA) mounted a vigorous campaign against this proposed legislation.In one survey of doctors carried out in 1948, the BMA claimed that only 4,734 doctors out of the 45,148 polled, were in favour of a National Health Service.

Photo:News Chronicle, Tues Aug 7, 1945. Doctors planned to trip up Bevan's NHS on the day the atom bomb was dropped.

News Chronicle, Tues Aug 7, 1945. Doctors planned to trip up Bevan's NHS on the day the atom bomb was dropped.

News Chronicle

Photo:David Low, 'Open Wide Please. This might hurt a little' Evening Standard (July, 1948)

David Low, 'Open Wide Please. This might hurt a little' Evening Standard (July, 1948)

Evening Standard

This page was added by Peter Daniel on 17/01/2019.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.