Universal health care’s humble origins

Posted on in Health Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion/Letters – Re: Feb. 12: Universal health care’s humble origins. Plus other letters to the editor

Early days of the NHS

Discussing the economic woes of Britain’s National Health Service in an era of “austerity-inclined politicians,” Konrad Yakabuski notes that all Western health-care systems face problems of sustainability given “the demands of an aging population and the wrath of tapped out taxpayers” (Is Our Health System Destined To Follow A U.S. Trajectory? Feb. 8).

Characterizing these systems as “born in the postwar era of abundance,” Mr. Yakabuski seemingly endorses the view that current society can no longer afford the luxury of universal health care. This argument is not well-grounded on a reading of history.

When the NHS was created in 1948, Britain was in economic crisis. With the country reeling in debt and a balance-of-payments deficit, the Labour government adopted a policy of austerity that lasted well into the 1950s. Wartime controls on the marketplace were extended. A case in point: Bread rationing was introduced after the Second World War, not during it. Viewed solely in economic terms, Britain could not afford the NHS in 1946. That the NHS was created speaks to a conscious decision on the part of government to prioritize health care and social services. Ultimately, what a society can or cannot afford is a policy decision.

Mariel Grant, associate professor, department of history, University of Victoria, Victoria


Whatever drove the creation of the NHS, it was not abundance. Historian Tony Judt in Postwar, his magisterial survey of that era, points out that Britain continued to maintain the illusion of being a great power without the resources to do so. Part of its resources went to paying the huge war debt to the United States, part to military expenditures. One result was that food rationing in Britain went on till 1954 – long after it had ended in the rest of Western Europe.

The creation of the NHS was a courageous decision by the Labour Party to radically improve the lives of British people. It benefited most sectors of society – hence the continuing broad support for it. Mr. Judt comments on the timing of the NHS’s introduction: “Precisely because times were difficult, the postwar welfare systems were a guarantee of a certain minimum or justice, or fairness.” We should be grateful that politicians once thought like that.

Christopher Petty, Winnipeg


As a seven year old in 1948 postwar Britain, I remember workers wearing surplus army clothing, food rationing and shortages of everything including coal. I suspect the same conditions existed in other European countries.

I do not remember the abundance until 1952 when my family emigrated to Canada, which incidentally did not have a publicly funded national health care system at the time.

David Ankrett, Port Perry, Ont.


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