Seventy-five years ago this week, Clement Attlee became prime minister of the most radical government in British history. In office, Attlee faced unprecedented problems created by the need to turn a near-bankrupt wartime economy back to the requirements of peace while finding work for millions of demobilized soldiers. Under his leadership and despite these problems the Labour administration nationalized 20 percent of the economy and created a cradle-to-the-grave welfare state, one his Conservative opponents said the country could not afford. At the heart of this new welfare state stood the National Health Service, which guaranteed free healthcare to all in need.
During the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher reversed many of Attlee’s economic reforms but even she, through gritted teeth, had to publicly promise that the NHS was safe in her hands. Thatcher was enough of a pragmatist to recognize that the NHS was one of Britain’s most popular institutions. Today it remains more highly regarded than the royal family. Some even claim the NHS has become the country’s ‘national religion’ and it certainly shapes how many Brits think of themselves and their nation, most notably expressed in the opening ceremony to the 2012 London Olympics. The COVID crisis has only strengthened the emotional bond between the British and their health service.