I would bet my house that you have never heard of Sir Henry Willink. Today he would be viewed as an unusual man, a rarity even, for he was a Scouse Tory at a time when being a Conservative from Liverpool was not a contradiction in terms like it is now.
For all his current anonymity, Henry Willink is worth knowing more about, as we all owe him a large debt of gratitude – it is not generally known, but he is the man chiefly responsible for conceiving the National Health Service. Yes, it’s true, a Tory created the NHS. It’s also true that a Liberal created the Welfare State. If you didn’t know any of this, you had better sit down before you read on.
This week’s general election campaign has been a real Punch and Judy affair, with the TV political pundits doing their usual dumbing-down by describing it as David Cameron in the bosses’ corner and Ed Miliband in the workers’ corner. That David Cameron has never been a boss and Ed Miliband has never been a worker is conveniently forgotten.
Stereotypes, clichés and platitudes are what matter to the broadcasters – it’s all about getting their take on what’s happening into snappy soundbites because they think a public that watches X Factor or The Only Way is Essex and thinks Jonathan Ross is talented cannot understand complexity. The news is treated as entertainment. If you want background, detail and irony, we should be watching the Politics Show and Newsnight – is the condescending conceit of the broadcasters.
So, in the next five weeks there will be far more reliance on stereotypes, clichés and platitudes – together with the soft-ball questions and the repetition of their received wisdom that consists of myths they have swallowed whole. The biggest myth of all is that the NHS is a Labour institution; conceived, delivered and nurtured by Labour – with those nasty Tories trying to bring it down at every opportunity.
It is a cast-iron certainty that there will come a point when the NHS becomes the focus of the campaign (like it did during the referendum) and we will hear all the usual guff about it being only Labour that can save the NHS. “More Tory NHS Cuts” will be the Labour mantra, repeated ad nauseam by the SNP, even though the facts tell us that the coalition government has actually increased spending on the NHS by some £10.6 billion while other departments have been cut.
I thought it only fair in the interest of balance that I should slay those dragons. This is where Sir Henry Willink comes in.
During the Second World War, there was, like now, a coalition government. Also like now, it had not been elected on a coalition ticket (where, like the National Government of the 30s, coalition parties did not stand against each other) but had been formed by the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties when Churchill became prime minister in 1940.
During the war years, a great deal of work was done establishing committees to lay plans for how Britain would be run in peacetime. These were all-party affairs and it fell to a Liberal economist, William Beveridge, to produce a report in 1942 titled “Social Insurance and Allied Services” that led to the establishment of the Welfare State. Labour initially opposed Beveridge’s report while the Conservatives and Liberals immediately endorsed it.
A year later, Henry Willink became the cabinet minister for health and in 1944 published a White Paper titled “A National Health Service” that proposed “a fully comprehensive, universal healthcare system, free of charge and available to all citizens irrespective of means”.
The Conservatives included a commitment in their manifesto for the 1945 general election, stating, “The health services of the country will be made available to all citizens. Everyone will contribute to the cost, and no one will be denied the attention, the treatment or the appliances he requires because he cannot afford them. We propose to create a comprehensive health service covering the whole range of medical treatment ... and to introduce legislation for this purpose in the new Parliament.”
But the Conservatives never did, because in 1945 Labour won the general election and it then fell to the new cabinet minister for health, Welshman Aneurin Bevan, to introduce the legislation in 1946 that saw the establishment of the NHS in 1948.
To the victors the spoils; the popular history is that it was Labour that brought us the NHS when, in truth, it was an all-party affair, mentioned by Beveridge in his report, conceived by Willink and with Bevan the midwife delivering it.
And as for those ’orrible Tories doing it down, well, the NHS is still here and for the majority of its time – 40 of its 67 years – it has been managed by Tory governments, and each time they have spent more money on it than when they inherited it.
So let’s have less of the myth-making from our politicians and more facts. Let’s hear what our politicians propose to do and how they are going to find the money to do it.
Meanwhile, thank you Sir Henry Willink, you deserve to be better known.