“The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with faith to fight for it.” – Aneurin Bevan, Labour Health Minister during foundation of NHS

It is 70 years since the foundation of the National Health Service in 1948. Then and today, the NHS is a world-leader in the provision of comprehensive, public health care, provided free at the point of delivery. Outside of Cuba, there is nothing else like it in the world and it is fiercely prized by working people, still coming out top as the most popular institution in every opinion poll.

This is a cause for celebration, but there is also much cause for concern. The current Tory government and the previous Tory-LibDem regime have starved the NHS of funds for a decade. Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, annual increases in healthcare funding have been only 1%. Given that healthcare inflation is greater than general inflation, and that the population is growing, this actually means real cuts year on year. Everyone who works in the NHS and everyone who uses it knows that it is a system creaking at the seams. The NHS is on the rack in order to protect the bankers and the 1%.

One result of the crisis is the repeated call from right-wing commentators and “think tanks” for a “debate” on the future of the NHS. By this, they mean more privatisation and more rationing of healthcare. The Tories would dearly love to dismantle the NHS but rightly fear the response. Press reports are indicating that the Tories will actually increase health funding as a “birthday present” to the NHS. If this happens, it will be no thanks to the Conservatives or the ruling class. It will be thanks to the pressure of ordinary people.

NHS: A prize won, not a gift received

The NHS was fought for by generations of working-class activists. In the 1920s and 30s, trade unions passed motions in favour of the nationalisation of the fragmented healthcare system that then existed. There were hundreds of independent hospitals which fund-raised continuously to stay afloat. It is well remembered that rich benefactors contributed to hospitals such as the Royal in Belfast, but largely forgotten that the Royal’s ‘Workingmen’s Committee’actually raised much more. Local authorities provided rudimentary health care in the workhouses – every large town in Northern Ireland had one and these were incorporated into the NHS in 1948.

The Socialist Medical Association (SMA) played a key role in agitating for the NHS. It brought together socialist doctors who organised in the union movement and the Labour Party. The SMA’s largest branch was in Belfast and it was influential within the Northern Ireland Labour Party. When the British Labour Party came to power in the 1945 landslide, it began to build the new NHS against the opposition of the Tories and the British Medical Association. In the North, both Unionist and Nationalist politicians were also opposed to the new service. The forces of opposition were not “persuaded”, they were effectively defeated by mass pressure.

The NHS was created by the working-class movement and has always been defended by the working class. The only genuine way to celebrate its 70th birthday is to defend every service and roll back privatisation in a new mass movement for the best health care available in the 21stcentury.

by Ciaran Mulholland

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