Would you say Winston Churchill was a Socialist Prime Minister?
That’s got your attention. Of course he wasn’t. Far from it.
But for the whole of the 1940s Britain had a government largely run by Socialists and for the first half of that Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister. So it is sort of true. Read on.
Since I did my walk around 1943 Liverpool with my then office junior Dad a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading a lot about the 1940s. Born in 1954 it was, after all, the decade that created the world I was born into and the NHS Hospital I was actually born in. A decade of some of the worst things the human race had ever done:
- The Holocaust;
- Stalin’s enslavements and mass slaughtering in the USSR and Eastern Europe;
- And the British and US fire storming and mass slaughter of German cities, well beyond any military reasoning.
But also a decade when we did one of the best things the human race had ever done, created the British National Health Service.
And over all of our side of things towered the truculent and mildly inebriated figure of the man who was once again Prime Minister when I was born, Winston Churchill. Let’s reflect.
First off the credits, the books that have got me thinking.
Then the biography ‘Churchill’ by German journalist Raimund Pretzel who called himself Sebastian Haffner during the war to protect members of his family still in Germany.
And finally ‘After the Victorians’ the middle book of a trilogy by former young fogey A.N. Wilson which, as you’ll see, after much mental arguing and delight, brought me to the writing of this.
So the story then. It could begin in so many places. In 1871 as the Franco-Prussian War ends without real peace. Towards the end of that century as young warrior Winston takes part in the last cavalry charge of the British Empire at the Battle of Omdurman, then various other adventures as the British invent the idea of concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer Wars. In Edwardian England as Lloyd George and his by now protégée Churchill begin a system of health and unemployment benefits through National Insurance. In Paris 1919 as a narrowly defeated Germany is ruinously routed in revenge for the Franco-Prussian and First World Wars by Lloyd George and the assembled powers.
But actually I’ll begin it in 1926. As Victorian grandee Winston Churchill, by now Chancellor under Lloyd George, brutally opposes the miners and the whole of the working class during the General Strike. Probably not a Socialist then.
In fact Sebastain Haffner talks of him more as a warrior than the politician he’s then become. More like a Napoleon or even an Attila the Hun sort of figure. A would be Dictator? Certainly not a democrat. Someone eager for any fight that’s going. On a trajectory through the 1930s to the fight of his life, the fight of all of our 20th century lives. With someone he called ‘The Crank’ – Adolf Hitler.
A fight where he came to power in 1940. Held, addressed and inspired the nation through near invasion in 1941. And kept a sceptical, though not entirely effective eye, on the Americans and Russians creating a new and cold world order through to 1945 – while some other people ran the country. Some Socialists.
By 1940 Britain had had a coalition government for nearly a decade and would continue to have one until almost the end of World War Two. Pooling political talents to deal with the great economic depression of the early 30s, then through the years of appeasement and the returning war with Germany in 1939. So when Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in 1940 it wasn’t that strange that some Labour politicians would be in his cabinet. But what surprised many at the time was that they dominated it. While Churchill was running the war, he was a warrior remember, Labour largely ran the country.
Labour figures like Clement Atlee, Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Ellen Wilkinson and Stafford Cripps dealt with health, food supplies, rationing and keeping industry and armaments production going. Together with working on ideas for what might make the country a better place once the war finally came to an end.
They had help with this. Tory Rab Butler’s Education Act was to provide wider secondary education for all. And Liberal William Beveridge, writing what came to be known as ‘The Beveridge Report’ and so creating ideas that proposed moving the system of national insurance well beyond what Lloyd George and Churchill had started back in 1911, into something much more ambitious, including a National Health Service. Something which Churchill himself said, would provide care for all ‘from the cradle to the grave’.
I won’t go into the full history of how what would later come to be known as the Welfare State, including the NHS, was set up by the incoming Labour Government after the war in Europe had ended in 1945. That’s not my point here.
My point here is that in the decade of its direst danger, the visions of a better world and the hopes that pulled us through to beginning to create it, came from across the political spectrum. A coalition, if you like, formed the ideas. They were widely popular. And the people gave the job of putting the ideas into practice to the wartime leaders they had the most confidence in now it was peacetime and they had a General Election, Labour.
From then on though, as I grew up, the NHS and the other elements of the Welfare State were generally supported and pretty well maintained by all governments of all parties. Until our current one.
Now we see the beginnings of breaking the service down and privatising it, of introducing elements of a US style private insurance system. There are no tills at the end of wards yet, but if we vote in the wrong government next year there soon may be.
So it’s just a thought, but maybe the sadly weak Labour showing so far would be strengthened by a more passionate defence than we’ve seen so far of our NHS. It’s been mentioned sure. I’ve seen Shadow Health Ministers Andy Burnham and Luciana Berger do so. But I think its defence and its future wellbeing need to be central to the debates from now on and foremost in everybody’s thought as we all decide which way to vote next May.
In 1945 the people of Britain knew they had it in their hands to do one of the greatest things the human race had ever done and create the National Health Service. Next May we will have it in our hands once again. We will have its survival in our hands.
So between now and then let’s talk about it, with the passion they had back then and the passion I think most of us have now. Otherwise we may lose it by default, to the grasping shareholders already lining up to steal it away.
Political rant over.
But to end, some surprising reflections on the creation of the NHS from one of the books mentioned earlier. I say surprising because A.N. Wilson, the author of ‘After the Victorians’ took me by surprise by his fervour. Reading like a committed monarchist, High Anglican and supporter of the landed gentry for much of his nevertheless splendid book, I was not expecting any of what follows when he finally reaches the creation of the NHS and his praises for Nye Bevan, the minister who largely set it up.
“It would have been intolerable to leave things as they had been before the war, with children suffering from rickets in mushroom-infected slum-dwellings. With the pensionless old dying destitute, with health care only available to those who could afford to pay for it…But the National Health Service was one of the most stupendous British inventions. As soon as it was started it was in a state of ‘crisis’, and it has been in a state of crisis ever since (but) the simple and magnificent thing about it cannot be diminished. You no longer needed, before you had your appendix removed, or your teeth fixed, or your weak heart, kidney or stomach attended to, to produce a chequebook.”
And about Nye Bevan’s achievement.
“He was that very rare thing in the history of politics, a man whose decisions on behalf of those he served brought about human betterment. This book has been a catalogue of mistakes by politicians, moral and practical disasters which led to wars, enslavement and human wretchedness on a scale which no previous age could have dreaded or dreamed of. The National Health Service, which inspired so many other countries in the world to imitate it, did what it set out to do, and with all its many mistakes and shortcomings, it still does so: it provides free medicine, free advice, free surgery, free nursing to everyone, regardless of their income…Bevan’s bold and patient nationalisation programme of the hospitals, together with his drawing into the national fold the general practitioners and the dentists, was a formidably skilful achievement. He deserves the laurel crown as the British politician who did the least harm and most good.”
We need some of that now. Politicians with the quality that was around in all parties in the 1940s. Not Churchill but maybe Butler, Beveridge and Atlee.
In particular, though, we need our Nye Bevan for today. Is it you Andy? Or you Luciana? Or maybe you Ed?
Oh well, maybe we’ll need to wait for a while?