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In 1945 and 1946, 3 million service personnel were de-mobbed, and 16 million workers changed jobs in a comprehensive reorganisation of the civilian workforce. The new government under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, himself a Great War veteran and more recently a key member of the Churchill’s (coalition) War Cabinet, immediately went to work on their economic and social agenda.
Priorities would be food, housing, full employment, and the “cradle to grave” welfare safety net initially flagged in the Beveridge Report of 1942. The millions transitioning to civilian life would be rejoining a very different society than those who came home after 1918.
In stark contrast to the interwar years, the unemployment rate held steady at around 2 percent, and would actually remain close to full employment levels for two decades.
The government consolidated and improved access to welfare benefits, raised the school leaving age, provided free secondary education and school milk, initiated a legal aid scheme and children’s allowances, legislated for urban planning controls, and brought major private and essential industries, including coal, under government ownership.
In 1948, the government’s signature policy was enacted: creation of the National Health Service (NHS). For the first time, there would be free health care for all. Regardless of wealth, where you lived, class, or employment status.
Healthcare for All
Prior to the NHS, the availability of healthcare had been patchy at best. People in work were covered by a scheme of national insurance, but this did not extend to their families.
“If you were wealthy or middle class even, you bought what was available,” Dt John Marks, a newly qualified doctor working for the fledgling NHS, later told the BBC. “There were two types of hospital; there was the so-called voluntary hospital where the doctors worked for nothing, and the municipal hospitals run by the local authority.”
Under Health Minister Aneurin Bevan, more than 2,500 voluntary and municipal hospitals were nationalised. The early days of the NHS also provided some indication of just how neglected the general health of the poor and working-classes had been under the former arrangements.
“People were coming forward in masses,” Marks recalled. “We couldn’t cope with the numbers. One didn’t realise how many people had needed surgery – men with huge hernias, women with prolapses – who couldn’t see a doctor because they couldn’t afford it.”
Good intentions aside, by the end of the 1940s, the wheels were beginning to fall off. The NHS budget had blown out to nearly three times initial estimates, housing reconstruction was frustratingly slow, even with the extensive roll-out of EFM (Emergency Factory Made) prefabricated housing.
Britain’s financial situation was precarious. Wages remained stagnant, but inflation was on the rise. Rationing and demoralising shortages remained, and the government was hemorrhaging support in both the country and the parliament. In 1950, they clung on to power with a wafer-thin majority, but the following year key resignations, protest against levying some NHS charges to fund Britain’s Korean War commitment, led to a second election.
Winston Churchill’s Conservatives were returned to power in 1951, and would remain in government, with a succession of Prime Ministers, for 13 years. Many of the Attlee government’s economic and social reforms remained in place, in what would become known as the Post-War Consensus.
Tony Benn MP opined that the provision of universal free health care “took the anxiety out of illness.”
To take his argument one step further, what effect did the post-war Attlee government’s stated aims, if not the ultimate results, have on veterans’ emotional recovery? We can’t know for sure, as so many found their own ways of privately coping and functioning in society. Huge numbers suffered in silence, as did their families. The extent of PTSD was not fully appreciated, studied, and documented until Vietnam, and wasn’t known as such until 1980.
Even before mass demobilisation, the World War Two generation had been empowered by the democracy they had been fighting for, and their voices had been heard. Their government, that they had voted for, had assured them that their welfare was a “sacred trust.”
So, if the NHS took the anxiety out of illness, what effect did the idealised vision of a full-employment welfare state have, with reassuring protections in place for every member of every growing family, under a government with a demonstrable social conscience?
In an era before widespread acceptance and availability of trauma counselling, did the welfare state, in fact, take the anxiety out of living?
George Fairbrother is the author the Armstrong and Burton novels. His interests include cultural and working-class history, post-war British cinema, as well as classic rock and roll and early Hollywood. You can follow him on his website and on Facebook.
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