Past Lives: Nye Bevan and the NHS
Discover the story of the visionary who founded our beloved NHS to provide free health care services to the nation – an act commemorated with a blue plaque at his former home.
On 5 July 1948 the National Health Service came into being – launched by its architect Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan at what is now Trafford General Hospital in Greater Manchester. As minister of health, and the youngest minister in Clement Attlee’s Labour government, Bevan had spent much of the previous two years - since the passing of the National Health Service Bill in the House of Commons on 2 May 1946 - cajoling stakeholders (most vitally, doctors) into participating in his ambitious new national scheme. The aim was to make health care free at the point of delivery as, largely, it remains today.
The NHS is surely the most enduring pillar of post-war consensus politics, yet Bevan was no consensus politician. On the eve of the new service’s launch, he made a speech in which, recalling the privations of the 1930s, he described Tory policymakers as ‘lower than vermin’. This infuriated his opponents and the jibe is still much quoted.
If the phrase remains a point of contention, the anger that drove Bevan to utter it was real. Four of his nine siblings did not survive childhood in Tredegar, south Wales. And, during the Depression, Bevan himself – obliged to live on the earnings of a sister – was told to emigrate.
As regards the challenge of starting a universal health service in a war-shattered country, Bevan defended his combative approach. ‘You may say a man of my temperament would find it difficult to obtain universal agreement,’ he commented, ‘but I sometimes wonder if whether a less belligerent personality would have started the scheme at all.’
By the time the NHS was born, Bevan’s circumstances had changed. He had been MP for Ebbw Vale for nearly two decades and had a London home – albeit one that had been bomb-damaged – at 23 Cliveden Place, on the Chelsea and Belgravia borders. It is this house that bears his blue plaque, which went up in 2015, almost 40 years after it was first mooted, owing to difficulties in gaining owner permission – difficulties that may perhaps have been linked to Bevan’s spiky political reputation. His wife, Jennie Lee, the politician best known for her key role in founding the Open University, is commemorated with him on the plaque.
Words by Howard Spencer
Illustration by Jasmine Whiteleaf