70 Years of the NHS: A Medical and Cultural Institution

On the 27th of July 2012, Stratford’s evening was lit up in a pandemonious display of bursting lights, wondrous sounds and waves of dancers. It was the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony: an ode to the ‘Isle of Wonder’, a magnificent call back to a nation’s history whose tale began long ago. But there is one section that is important to us today, that being the moment at exactly 21:35, when out of this thunderous show came 1,800 NHS staff; dancing and (in droves) pushing young children jumping on trampoline hospital beds. The programme for the show, in explaining the health service’s inclusion, described it as:

The institution which more than any other unites our nation.’

 And could the director, Danny Boyle, and his team be any more right? Perhaps not, for the NHS, with all its quirks and foibles, has so deeply entrenched itself amongst our lifestyles, cultures and discourses since its inception. In fact, whilst the police, the army, and the political sphere have been constantly under fire in both the town square protest or the dining room hate-fest, there is little doubt that our health service is nearly universally loved. You will be hard pressed to find a person in Britain (unless they can afford private healthcare of course) who is against it. It is the centrepiece of a modern, ethical state, and is the image of a people united after war, seeking to rebuild. These were the sentiments of Clement Atlee’s 1945 Labour government, whose statue sits proudly outside our campus, and whose campaign for socialised health brought him a landslide win.


Now, 70 years after its founding, the NHS has proven to be just as much a part of our lives than anything else. This includes culture, of course, for often we will see films and television shows set in hospitals all over the UK, where the institution itself sits as a constant, easily identifiable background that is known to all. Whether that be the somewhat infamous Carry On films, such as Carry On Doctor and Carry On Matron, or the old and new television shows Emergency Ward 10 andOne Born Every Minute, having a free-to-access, publicly owned health service is undoubtedly our norm. There is no question of private practise, just the standardised and open-to-all health service we have come to love.


Taken from ‘peopleshistorynhs.org’.

But sitting honourably in the background of our lives is not all the NHS has been; however, for such a loved icon of British life has often been the ground of jostling between a discontented population and the political establishment. In the times of both Thatcher’s neoliberal ideology and Blair’s rampant PFI privatisation, the people have had to fight for the health service’s survival. Satire has often been an effective way to convey this; above and below you will see political cartoons bemoaning cuts and calling out politicians. On top of this, the very television we watch has often been created with support for the NHS in mind. Casualtyand Cardiac Arrestare two shows with heavily pro-NHS dialogues, with Casualty’s writers expressing their want to create a ‘television revolution’ to fight Thatcher’s pro privatisation reforms. Even the London Olympics opening ceremony, which was praised so wholeheartedly amongst the world’s press, came under pressure from the rather hated Jeremy Hunt, and criticised by the Daily Mail columnist Rick Dewsbury of being ‘leftie multicultural crap’.

Taken from ‘archive.cartoons.ac.uk’.

I mention these unsavoury characters in our establishment to make something depressingly clear. The NHS is a symbol, a part of British identity and a well-loved institution in this country. However, in a world where we are yet again drifting towards the right-end of economic policy (just as we did in the Thatcher years), there is a chance that we may begin to lose our health service once again. It is true that all major parties speak out in support of it (even UKIP), but these words do not match either the actions or the respective ideologies of many politicians. The service is crumbling from both a lack of funding and reform, and if it is to survive we must see it both as a national treasure, and alsoas a socialised form of left-wing policy that forms the backbone of our workforce. If we had never known of it, and if it wasn’t for our ancestors who created it, I very much doubt universal healthcare (just like in the US) would be voted for today.

So, as a gift for the NHS’s 70th birthday. Fight for it.

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