History / Politics

Safe in their hands

It’s the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service. In the words of Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Out of the rubble and devastation of the Second World War a Labour government built the world’s first comprehensive public healthcare system. It’s Labour’s and our country’s proudest achievement.’
But the relationship between Labour and the NHS hasn’t always been quite as fraternal as that might suggest. Since the days of Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan, the party has been in government for three periods (1964–70, 1974–79, 1997–2010). Here are half-a-dozen quotes from the newspapers in each of these three periods…


‘A warning by Dr Arnold Elliott (Medical Practitioners’ Union) that the Health Service was in grave danger of collapsing in the near future, possibly in the next few months, was reiterated with a variety of medical imagery by other speakers.’ – Guardian (1965) [i]

‘Ten trade unions, representing among them threequarters of all National Heath Service staff, want immediate government action to safeguard the medical and welfare services. They say that the entire structure is being undermined by lack of money and manpower, wrong priorities and unfair economies.’ – Guardian (1966) [ii]

‘Chronic starvation of capital … uncivilized standards … doctors working with hopelessly outdated plant … hospitals that function by courtesy of the medical schools and governments of Commonwealth countries. One of the country’s leading medical experts uses these phrases in describing Britain’s National Health Service.’ – Newcastle Journal (1967) [iii]

‘Many believe that a crisis point is approaching unless more money is injected, and unless radical changes are made to a structure set up an age ago in terms of medical development.’ – Observer (1968) [iv]

‘”After twenty years (this year is the twentieth anniversary of the NHS) it is right,” said the minister [Bruce Millan], “that we should look at the structure of the NHS and decide whether it is any longer adequate for the jobs it has to do.”’ – Aberdeen Press and Journal (1968) [v]

‘Health service facing crisis.’ – Times headline (1970) [vi]


‘NHS crisis warning to minister by anaesthetists.’ – Times headline (1975) [vii]

‘Junior hospital doctors seem set on confrontation with the government, whatever the consequences for patients, Mr [Denis] Healey, chancellor of the exchequer, said last night in Leeds.’ – Times (1975) [viii]

‘A motion passed virtually unanimously by the BMA’s annual representative meeting said that the “crisis of confidence” between doctors and government “has reached breaking point”.’ – Guardian (1976) [ix]

‘Mr [David] Ennals is accused of ignoring NHS crisis.’ – Times headline (1978) [x]

‘Hospitals face crisis over nurse shortage.’ – Guardian headline (1978) [xi]

‘Mr [James] Callaghan said in his speech that there had been huge improvements in the NHS, but there was still a lack of resources, partly because needs and standards were growing. The amount spent on the NHS, however, could only be increased when the economy was healthy.’ – Guardian (1978) [xii]


‘One of the largest projects is the new University College Hospital. The old UCH … is – like so much of the NHS – a hospital in crisis … The new PFI hospital will have a third fewer beds, 28 per cent fewer nurses and a fifth fewer operating theatres than the facilities it replaces. Nonetheless it aims to boost revenue by increasing the “throughput” of patients by more than a quarter, performance levels never yet achieved in Britain.’ – Will Hutton, Observer (1998) [xiii]

‘Hospital doctors yesterday clashed with Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, over the crisis in the health service.’ – Independent (1999) [xiv]

‘Robert Smith, whose three-year-old daughter Hannah died last week after much-delayed heart surgery, condemned the Government for taking almost three years to get round to tackling the NHS crisis.’ – Northern Echo (2000) [xv]

‘EU dentists head for UK in NHS crisis.’ – People headline (2004) [xvi]

‘We’re spending £94bn on the health service this year, compared with £52bn six years ago … so why are wards shut down, operations cancelled and trusts in turmoil?’ – Independent headline (2006) [xvii]

‘Putting targets ahead of patient care is the biggest area of concern for Brits, with 63 per cent citing it as a problem in the YouGov poll of 1,747 adults. And 91 per cent agreed there should be a cut in management spending to boost investment in frontline services.’ – Sun (2010) [xviii]

artwork-carry-on-again-doctor

The NHS yesterday…


[i] Guardian 8 September 1965

[ii] Guardian 9 June 1966

[iii] Newcastle Journal 11 August 1967

[iv] Observer 10 March 1968

[v] Aberdeen Press and Journal 10 July 1968

[vi] Times 12 May 1970

[vii] Times 6 October 1975

[viii] Times 22 November 1975

[ix] Guardian 17 July 1976

[x] Times 13 March 1978

[xi] Guardian 8 May 1978

[xii] Guardian 6 July 1978

[xiii] Observer 13 December 1998

[xiv] Independent 3 January 1999

[xv] Northern Echo 17 January 2000

[xvi] People 14 March 2004

[xvii] Independent 18 January 2006

[xviii] Sun 15 March 2010

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