People's History of the NHS

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The Politics of Health Before the NHS

Long before the NHS was even a sparkle in its political parents’ eyes, British political parties sought to badge themselves as ‘caring’ and their opponents as heartless, spendthrift, or feckless (depending on their political persuasions). In the interwar years, an ever-growing proportion of the public (and especially women over the age of 21, via the 1928 Representation of the People Act) gained the power to directly affect policy – in other words, the right to VOTE. At the same time, medicine gained in stature and in power. If in the middle and late nineteenth century, doctors could do little to heal the sick, by the early twentieth century, public health and sanitation clearly saved lives. By the interwar years, doctors could save at least some of their patients, if charities, mutual aid societies, or the sick individuals themselves could afford to pay for their care. Taken together, these two factors –more (and poorer) voters and better (and costlier) medicine – made rhetorical support for the provision of at least some health services for the poor, indigent, and vulnerable populations like mothers and infants a vote winner, particularly as women gained in political power. They have continued to do so until the present.

RB

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