I was 11 years old on July 5th 1948, when the NHS was born. It’s safe to say that I was totally oblivious to the greatest act of social legislation ever passed into law by any government for the good of the people it served. My shameful ignorance at the time has been overtaken down the years by a deep appreciation and an even deeper respect for the dearly loved but constantly threatened institution.
Before Health Minister Aneurin Bevan’s ideal that “good health should be available to all regardless of wealth” became reality, so-called ordinary Britons shifted uneasily for themselves in fighting off injury or illness. Most parents adapted into self-taught medics and developed a commonsense range of skills in taking care of their families. With his bill an unpleasant deterrent, calling in a doctor was an option considered only as a last resort. In other words, next to never.
Women became diagnostic savants as well as prescriptive wizards. A ruthless gang of them, which included my mum, paternal gran and maiden aunt Mary Ellen, once fell upon me during one of our summer-long evacuations to the Irish countryside, when I reported back to the farmstead after an afternoon of blissful lawlessness, sporting an angry, red stripe climbing up an arm from a wound I’d hardly noticed on my hand. Within hours, a series of bread and porridge poultices routed the poison and staved off possible amputation. Likewise, boils were popped or lanced, headlice were shown the door by Nitty Nora and iodine took care of complaints unmoved by germolene. You took off fast when iodine was mentioned.
The feeling of relief and gratitude with which the post-war population welcomed the NHS is tough to convey to people who were born under its umbrella. No longer was good health care the exclusive birthright of privileged toffs. While under its benign auspices, formerly fatal diseases like tuberculosis or meningitis (Mum lost an older brother I never knew to meningitis) were conquered by research made possible under the new, revolutionary phenomenon. Life expectancy increased, with the quality of life itself enhanced for countless millions by what Danny Boyle called “the institution which more than any other unites our nation.”
Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960) spent the rest of his life battling to defend the NHS’ integrity against covetous attacks to limit its reach and effectiveness. Voted 1st in a list of 100 Welsh heroes as recently as 2004, recognition of his selfless endeavours is largely confined to Wales; within his own country he is properly considered a prophet with honour. The Prime Minister he served – Clement Attlee – whose government made possible the NHS and, among other good works, addressed a grossly unfair education system, meanwhile goes disgracefully overlooked.
Both Nye Bevan and Clem Attlee would have shifted uncomfortably in their graves earlier this week as the NHS was briefly pawed by a creepy American bloke, a cynical speculator who was unmoved by the majesty of its noble ambition but instead sensed in it only an inviting moneyspinner. Rarely before did the adage about “knowing the price of everything but the the value of nothing” ring with more truth. Our most cherished British institution must be removed from any table where he is balefully sitting. It ain’t for sale, pal. So do one!