The National Health Service goes right to the heart of who we are as a people. Founded in 1946 first in England and Wales, Scotland 1947 and Northern Ireland 1948, it is an institution rooted in the nation of the United Kingdom and the constituent nations themselves, no more so than when the country came together to applaud its workers on a weekly basis earlier this year.
Free at the point of use, but collectively funded through general taxation, many on the Left laud the NHS as some form of socialist achievement, solely the work of the post-War Labour Government. The reality was its formation was the work of Britons across the political spectrum and across Britain. Indeed it was Dr Somerville Hastings of the Socialist Medical Association who got the Labour Party to commit to a state health service in the 1930s, but it was the work of Liberal economist William Beveridge and Tory Health Minister Henry Willink that brought this reality even closer. Half of Scotland was already covered by state provision and it was under the Atlee administration where Tredegar-born Aneurin Bevan made this decades-old idea a living reality.
Many lament the four systems approach to the Health Service and see it as a failure of devolution, yet the four systems approach has been at the heart of the NHS through its history, accountability shared initially by the Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Many also lament what almost seems like the near religiosity, public worship of the Health Service- in fact I am sure I would have uttered the words “the closest thing to a state religion” in the past. However it is the one thing that does seem to unite the country- the initial community-spirit of those early coronavirus months did seem to invoke in us a sense of community and a healing of the old Brexit wounds, which now seems to have dissipated. But the NHS speaks to the success of the Union.
Pieces on the Prydain Review have sought to set out the framework to make the romantic argument for the Union as opposed to the boring mundane economic arguments of old. The NHS is the first of these romantic cases to be made. To the separatists, the Union is a mere expression of English imperialism and dominance, with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland being the final colonies of England in need of liberation, not a liberation from foreign actors but rather a liberation of the self, to see the flourishing of Welsh identity to replace any sense of British identity. Save for the current failures of the health service, the story of the NHS shatters the myth of Britain being a failed project. The NHS is a long-standing institution breathed and formed by the collaborative work of Britons across the Isles and is sustained everyday by public servants from the Shetland Islands to the Isles of Scilly.
If this does not demonstrate the success of Britain, then what does?