Labour claims credit for the NHS, but Liberals laid the foundations

One of the enduring myths of British politics is that the Labour Party was uniquely responsible for founding the National Health Service. “It was the Attlee government’s introduction of the National Health Service which will rightly go down as Labour’s greatest achievement,” says the party’s website. “Labour created the NHS,” maintains the party’s shadow health secretary.

But this partisan, somewhat sentimental version of history has been demolished over the years by historians of the welfare state. In 1995, Nicholas Timmins started his magisterial (and recently updated) study, The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State, by highlighting the vital role of William Beveridge, the civil servant and sometime Liberal MP. In 1942, Beveridge produced a comprehensive state plan for social care, which included the first public discussion of a “National Health Service.”

Timmins built on Paul Addison’s ground-breaking work from twenty years earlier, The Road to 1945. Addison showed how the wartime coalition government fostered a strong consensus about the state’s future role in delivering post-war economic recovery and enhancing the peoples’ welfare. The consensus was helped considerably by the expansion of the state’s role into almost every aspect of people’s lives during the conflict. As Seth Thevoz has said, “what cannot be stressed enough is that in the subsequent 1945 General Election, all three parties endorsed the Beveridge Report.”

In 2017, Dr Chris Renwick, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of York, published Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State, tracing the story back to the mid nineteenth century, and describing a national project that was a long time in the making. Crucially, many of the important visionaries were liberals, from David Ricardo to John Maynard Keynes. From start to finish, Dr Renwick was clear, “Liberalism was woven into the welfare state’s identity.”.

He highlighted how the New Liberals of the early twentieth century were instrumental in delivering a radical, new approach to health policy. In 1911, the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, introduced health insurance for all wage earners aged between sixteen and seventy, with benefits including sick pay for up to twenty-six weeks and treatment from a doctor.

The post-First World War Lloyd George Coalition established, in 1919, the Ministry of Health, with a wide-ranging remit, including medical training and maternity and child services. Lloyd George appointed the UK’s first Minister of Health, the Liberal MP Christopher Addison, who was also responsible for delivering his promise of “homes fit for heroes”.

The Liberal Democrat History Group is delighted that Dr Chris Renwick and Lord Kenneth Morgan, a co-biographer of Christopher Addison and one of Britain’s leading modern historians, will be the guest speakers at our Autumn Conference fringe meeting, The Liberal Party, Health Policy and the Origins of the NHS. The meeting will take place at 7.45 p.m. on Sunday, September 15th in the Purbeck Suite, Marriott Highcliff Hotel, 105 St Michael’s Road, Bournemouth BH2 5DU. We look forward to seeing you there.