A Brief History of the NHS and the British Welfare State

Attlee and Bevan

Clemont Attlee, a British politician from the 1940s

In 1948 on this day Aneurin Bevan, Health Minister in the Attlee government, signed off on the creation of the National Health Service. This was against the wishes of organised medical professionals, including the British Medical Association, but managed to create the cornerstone of the modern British welfare state. This major development was not at the whim of Attlee or Bevan but instead was the result of a shift in attitudes after World War II that made the creation of the welfare state possible. The experience of war had brought people closer together in both a political and social sense. There was an emerging consensus that ‘cradle to grave’ care was a good thing, evident from the large degree of cross party support for the creation of the welfare state.

The Beveridge Report

A well lit operating table in a clean hospital surrounded by medical equipment


The Beveridge Report, compiled by William Beveridge, highlighted the five ‘Giant Evils’ that he saw as plaguing British society. These were want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. In order to tackle disease, publicly funded healthcare was implemented and that meant that people from all stratas of society, rich or poor, received the same level of care for their illnesses.


The NHS from 1948 to 2018

A doctor is writing a daily report schedule on a table with lots of pill and medical equipment

There was opposition from medical professionals who wanted to keep healthcare private as they disliked the idea of becoming civil servants and working for the government.The doctors were finally won over with the promise of extra funding for their hospitals and an arrangement that allowed GPs to have a degree of autonomy. Within its first decade the NHS had: released PSAs on hygiene, unraveled DNA structure and made an important link between smoking and lung cancer. Despite the challenges it faces, the NHS is still providing the same ‘cradle to grave’ care that it was set out to do seventy years ago.




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