75 Years on. How the NHS almost never happened

As the National Health Service (NHS) marks its 75th anniversary, let's take a moment to reflect on the visionary founder who laid the groundwork for this iconic British institution. Aneurin Bevan, the driving force behind the creation of the NHS, revolutionised healthcare in the United Kingdom and left an indelible legacy that continues to touch millions of lives to this day.

Born on November 15, 1897, in Tredegar, South Wales, Aneurin Bevan's early life was shaped by his working-class background. His father was a coal miner, and Bevan himself began working in the mines at a young age. However, his passion for knowledge and a desire to create a more equitable society led him to educate himself, and he soon became involved in local politics and labour movements.

Bevan's political rise was meteoric, and he was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Ebbw Vale in 1929. Throughout his career, he advocated for social justice and workers' rights, earning a reputation as an ardent socialist and an impassioned orator. But it was after the devastation of World War II that Bevan would embark on his most transformative endeavor.

In the aftermath of the war, Britain was in desperate need of a robust and accessible healthcare system. Private healthcare was often expensive and limited to those who could afford it, leaving many vulnerable citizens without adequate medical care. Bevan, as the newly appointed Minister of Health in Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government, saw an opportunity to effect change on a grand scale.

Drawing inspiration from the Beveridge Report, a groundbreaking analysis of social insurance and allied services, Bevan began crafting a visionary plan for a comprehensive healthcare system that would be accessible to all, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Despite resistance from the British Medical Association (1) and opposition parties, the result was the National Health Service Act, which received royal assent on July 5, 1948, and laid the foundation for the NHS as we know it today.

On that historic day, Bevan addressed the nation, expressing his vision for the NHS: "We now have the moral leadership of the world... No longer will the resources of our excellent doctors be at the disposal of the highest bidder... no longer will people be shunned away from hospitals because they cannot afford to pay." The NHS provided free healthcare for everyone at the point of delivery, funded through taxation, and its principles of universality and equity resonated deeply with the public.

The establishment of the NHS was not without its challenges. Critics questioned the financial sustainability of such an ambitious project, and some feared that it might compromise the quality of healthcare. However, Bevan's dedication and unwavering belief in the NHS prevailed. He navigated through political hurdles and worked tirelessly to make the NHS a success.

Over the decades, the NHS has become a symbol of British pride and a model for universal healthcare systems worldwide. Its impact on the nation's health and wellbeing cannot be overstated, as it continues to provide essential medical services to millions of people, from routine check-ups to life-saving treatments.

Today, as we commemorate the NHS's 75th anniversary, it is essential to remember and honour the man behind this extraordinary institution, Aneurin Bevan. His legacy reminds us that bold vision, determination, and compassion can create lasting change and bring about a brighter future for all.

As the NHS faces new challenges in the 21st century, let us draw inspiration from Bevan's spirit and continue to uphold the principles of universal healthcare and social justice that he championed. In doing so, we ensure that the NHS remains a beacon of hope, providing care and comfort to generations yet to come.

(1) Webster C. The NHS's 50 anniversary. Something to celebrate. The BMA and the NHS. BMJ. 1998 Jul 4;317(7150):45-7. doi: 10.1136/bmj.317.7150.45. PMID: 9651271; PMCID: PMC1113451.

Back to blog