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Bevan Fought for the NHS — and so Must We

A new play at the National Theatre explores Nye Bevan’s hard-fought struggle against healthcare profiteers to create the NHS — a fight we must rediscover to save the service from today’s privatisation-loving politicians.

Michael Sheen as Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan in ‘Nye’ at the National Theatre (Johan Persson)

The creation of the NHS was one of the most significant achievements of any Labour government. Nye, a new play at the National Theatre starring Michael Sheen, depicts the challenges faced by left-wing firebrand Aneurin Bevan as he attempted to set up the health service in the wake of the Second World War.

The play depicts how Bevan’s upbringing in a small mining town in South Wales shaped his politics. He watched his father, a miner, die of black lung, while the mining companies blacklisted those who fought for better pay and conditions. From his earliest days as a politician, Bevan’s central concern was, in his own words, ‘Where does power lie in Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers?’

During the war, he was a thorn in the side of the Labour leadership, which demurred from criticising government policy at home in a show of ‘national unity’. After the war, Bevan was shocked to be offered a position in the cabinet as minister for Health and Housing. Attlee knew the challenges Bevan would face in the role. Battles with the doctors had been career-ending for many previous health ministers.

Bevan, inspired by the example set by community health organisations in his hometown of Tredegar, realised that he had to act swiftly and decisively to create a truly national health service. He announced plans to nationalise the hospitals and negotiated behind the scenes with the doctors, only securing their consent at the last possible moment.

The creation of the NHS was one of the most transformative policies introduced by any government in UK history. Within a decade of its launch, infant mortality had fallen by 50 percent and life expectancy had increased by twelve years. Because of its astonishing popularity, the founding of the NHS could not be undone. The Tories had vehemently opposed the policy but had to accept it once in office, despite the fact that it represented a significant shift of power in favour of workers.

The founding of the NHS was what the theorist Andre Gorz would have referred to as a non-reformist reform: a policy change that is conceived ‘not in terms of what can be, but what should be.’

While it has been all but impossible for successive governments to undo the creation of the NHS, they have attempted to undermine it. Bevan himself resigned from the government when Attlee attempted to introduce prescription charges for dentistry and eye care.

As I wrote in Tribune last year, Thatcher attempted to introduce her own ‘non-reformist reforms’ of the NHS, with a view to privatising healthcare in the UK once again. Ever since, the Conservatives have been following what Chomsky called the ‘standard technique’ of privatisation: ‘defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital’. Since 2010, the NHS has faced the longest real-terms funding squeeze in its history.

Today, nearly 70 percent of people think the service is underfunded. People are languishing — and often dying — waiting for operations, ambulances and emergency care in hospitals up and down the country. But the Labour Party — the Party that created the NHS — is not coming to the rescue.

Keir Starmer has tied his own hands with his absurd ‘fiscal rule’ which commits the Party to balancing spending over its first term. And Starmer and Reeves have constrained themselves even further by committing not to raise taxes on the wealthy.

As Andrew Balls, Ed Balls’ brother and Chief Investment Officer for large bond fund PIMCO, stated in an interview for the Financial Times, the bond markets have priced in a Labour victory. But investors do not believe that there will be any change in the country’s approach to macroeconomic management under Labour. Balls stated outright that he thinks ‘both sides will have very similar fiscal policy’.

All this means that there will not be much new money for a Labour government to fund public services. Instead, they are likely to follow the Tory line of pushing for ‘efficiency savings’ and ‘reforms’ — codewords for stealth privatisation.

Wes Streeting has been one of the most outspoken Shadow Cabinet members on healthcare. Streeting has repeatedly argued for greater private involvement in the operation of the NHS, which was also passionately pursued by his political idol, Tony Blair. The stealth privatisation of the NHS under successive governments has, as I wrote in Tribune last year, undermined outcomes and increased costs.

Tom Blackburn has detailed how Streeting has received thousands of pounds worth of campaign donations from individuals and groups with deep links to private healthcare businesses — including a recruitment agency that works with private healthcare companies. These donations always come with strings attached. When Labour is in office, it will be Streeting’s job to push through a privatisation agenda that benefits the companies lobbying him at the expense of patients and the public.

Starmer’s orthodox approach to macroeconomic management means there will be no new money for the NHS — or indeed any of our grossly stretched public services — under a Labour government. De facto austerity will continue, while politicians like Streeting do the Tories’ job for them by pushing for greater private sector involvement in the health service.

Bevan would not be surprised at the current state of the Labour Party. He once said:

I know that the right kind of leader for the Labour Party is a desiccated calculating machine who must not in any way permit himself to be swayed by indignation… He must speak in calm and objective accents and talk about a dying child in the same way as he would about the pieces inside an internal combustion engine.

Keir Starmer fits perfectly his definition of the ‘right kind of leader for the Labour Party’. Starmer is the kind of character that the wealthy and powerful can rely upon to briefly take the reins of the British state while what remains of the decrepit Tory Party takes some time to reinvent itself over the next several years.

Bevan also said that the NHS would only survive for as long as people were willing to fight for it. If we want to save the NHS, we must fight the calculated indifference of both Labour and the Tories.