Long before many of today’s frothing right-wing demagogues were born, American conservatives came to idolize Winston Churchill, the late Tory prime minister whose wartime leadership of the British people transformed into the living symbol of democracy armed. That reputation was cemented by his legendary Missouri speech in 1946 warning of the “Iron Curtain” drawn by the Soviet Communists across Eastern Europe. Indeed, journalists and bloggers on the right admire the old warhorse so much that he has even outpolled Ronald Reagan as their “Man of the Century.”
Yet by the standards of the present moment, as these same conservatives mobilize against health care reform to “stop socialism,” that same great man was actually a raving Bolshevik. For among his most enduring legacies was the founding and sustenance of the system that became the National Health Service. Arguably as much as any other British politician, it was Churchill who established “socialized medicine.”
Perhaps it is a forlorn hope that facts and history can make any impression on the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Chuck Grassley, or Bill Kristol, but let’s try anyway -- because it is worth understanding that despite the low quality of our own so-called conservatives, there was once another kind.
Churchill was renowned as a politician who put country and civilization above party. The government he led during World War II was a broad coalition of the British parties, from his own Conservatives to the democratic socialists of Labor. Midway through the war, Churchill’s government asked Sir William Beveridge, a Liberal Party social reformer and economist to study systems of social insurance that could reduce poverty, disease, unemployment and illiteracy in Britain.
In 1942, Beveridge issued an far-reaching report that proposed a national health service to provide medical care to every man, woman and child, regardless of means -- much as the coalition government had done during the medical emergency brought on by the German bombings of their cities, hospitals and clinics.
Although Churchill endorsed the idea of a national health system, his party lost the first post-war general election in 1945, partly because British voters didn’t trust the Tories to implement the Beveridge report. Instead a Labor government established universal care under the NHS in 1948.
Only three years later, the Tories returned to power with Churchill restored as prime minister. At that point, the NHS could still have been killed -- and many members of the Tory party, not to mention the British Medical Association, were eager to do so.
But Churchill asked Claude Guillebaud, a Cambridge economist, to head a committee to study the performance and efficiency of the NHS. The Gillebaud committee found that the NHS was highly effective – and needed additional funding to insure that effectiveness would continue. There was no more talk of dismantling the very popular service, and instead the Tories under Churchill and his immediate successors allocated more money to build additional clinics and hospitals. Even Margaret Thatcher, the most ideological Tory prime minister of modern times, promised voters that “the NHS is safe in our hands.”
As a lifelong conservative with a strong dedication to enterprise and merit (and a host of less admirable right-wing prejudices), Churchill would have bristled at anyone who dared to describe him as a socialist. Why then did he promote and protect the NHS? Partly out of political expediency, no doubt, but also because he felt an ethical obligation that seems not to trouble the contemporary conservatives who profess to admire him.
In March 1944, he eloquently explained his views on medicine and society to the members of Royal College of Physicians in London:
The discoveries of healing science must be the inheritance of all. That is clear. Disease must be attacked, whether it occurs in the poorest or the richest man or woman simply on the ground that it is the enemy; and it must be attacked just in the same way as the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humblest cottage as readily as to the most important mansion. Our policy is to create a national health service in order to ensure that everybody in the country, irrespective of means, age, sex, or occupation, shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.
That is what he helped to do -- and for the rest of his life, he fought against the impression that his old adversaries in Labor had established the system alone.
Lately, the subject of the NHS erupted into the American debate over health care when Investors Business Daily, a hard-line right-wing financial publication based in New York, suggested in an editorial that a statist system like Britain’s would have left Stephen Hawking, the Nobel physicist and popular author, to die of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has afflicted him since he was 21 years old. That ignorant screed prompted Hawking -- who has of course lived in Britain all his life -- to declare that the NHS had saved his life. Furious Britons of all political parties leaped forward to defend their medical system, mocking the dumb American right-wingers and overwhelming Twitter with messages hashmarked “I love the NHS.”
Whatever the marvels and defects of the NHS may be – and most experts agree that it does a superb job despite inadequate funding -- its importance for the debate over American health care reform may be moral rather than practical. Imagine what kind of country we would inhabit if those who claim to represent conservatism in America possessed even a small measure of the human compassion and political decency of Churchill at his best. It is a standard that they do not even attempt to achieve these days.