How did Britain build the NHS?

Britain's biggest social experiment

The National Health Service was born from a truly ground-breaking postwar policy. It was founded on the fundamental principle that healthcare would be free at the point of access.

Almost 70 years after its introduction in 1948, the NHS remains at the heart of British public life and continues to attract a great deal of political interest both domestically and abroad.

But how did Britain come to embrace such an ambitious and pioneering social experiment?

The big idea

In 1942, Sir William Beveridge, a prominent government economist, was commissioned to write a report on social policy to advise how Britain should rebuild after World War Two.

In his report, Beveridge identified society's five "Great Evils", namely: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. He proposed a revolutionary form of government organisation, with an ambitious system of social security designed to set new standards for citizen welfare, a system we now call the welfare state.

The Beveridge Report set out some radical and controversial new ideas and was initially set to play a significant role in World War Two itself.

A key component of this report was a National Health Service that was free at the point of access and paid for by taxation. This idea went on to form the basis for the NHS when it was introduced in 1948.

An explosive report

The Beveridge Report proved to be a powerful piece of propaganda for the Allies and created great support for the notion of the welfare state.

Enter Nye Bevan

In 1945, as World War Two was reaching its conclusion, Labour achieved a shock election victory. Winston Churchill was ousted as prime minister and replaced by the relatively unknown Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Labour won the election with a manifesto drawing directly on the Beveridge Report. It promised a National Health Service that would make healthcare available to those who had previously been unable to afford it.

Once elected, Labour's Minister for Health, Nye Bevan, was tasked with leading its creation. Bevan's background as a Welsh miner and staunch trade unionist fuelled his passion to make the NHS a reality.

The NHS represented a radical shift in the organisation and provision of health services. Bevan faced strong initial opposition from both Labour and Conservative MPs, as well as from the British Medical Association.

He eventually won over the detractors and in 1946 the National Health Service Act was passed, paving the way for the NHS to be launched on 5 July 1948.

Bevan versus the doctors

Yet not everyone was so enthusiastic about the Beveridge's Report radical message. Before the NHS was launched, Nye Bevan faced significant opposition from the British Medical Association, the doctors' trade union and professional body.

The NHS in numbers

Statistics true as of 2016.

Learn more about this topic:

The Longer View: Labour and the unions
Did the suffragettes win women the vote?
The people are revolting: A timeline of protest