If anyone has yet to see ‘To Provide All People‘, Owen Sheers’ incredible ‘poem in the voice of the NHS’, dramatised by the BBC, then you are missing out on the television and literary event of the year.
Celebrating 70 years since the creation of the British National Health Service, ‘To Provide All People’ is told through the voices of workers and patients in a Welsh hospital, played by a Who’s Who of progressive British actors. Hywel (Michael Sheen), a porter, starts things off philosophically by asking where the idea for free, universal health care originated: “Someone, somewhere, I always think, back across the millennia, must have been the first to lay a hand on the wound of a stranger. In a cave maybe, ice at its mouth, a fire beside. Or perhaps later, in a hut or a shelter.”
It’s an interesting thought, although the ultimate parent of the NHS itself was undoubtedly Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health from 1945 to 1951. It was he who had the courage and the vision not just to tinker with the pre-war system of privately provided care, backed up by local charity, but to force through the creation of a fully free and comprehensive system, “a service owned by the public” explains Yvonne, an orderly, “national not just in geography, but also universality.”
Bevan faced down opposition from the leading doctors’ organisation, the Conservative opposition (who voted over 20 times against his national health service legislation) and some in his own party who thought he was being too radical. He found the strength to do so from the conviction of the ordinary people of his Welsh mining home, along with the thousands of others who wrote to him every week, urging Labour in Bevan’s words “[That] despite our economic anxieties were are still able to do the most civilised thing in the world, and put the welfare of the sick before every other consideration.”
Famously, Bevan – who started his working life aged 14 in the coal mines – desired to rise not out of his class, but with it. He saw a free health service as the cornerstone of making that dream possible and he wanted its creation to make Britain a beacon of what kind of world was possible.
‘To Provide All People’ tracks twenty-four hours in a single hospital, while simultaneously, due to the brilliance of Owen Sheers’ poetry, telling the the life-story of the NHS since its momentous creation in 1948. It is incredibly moving throughout, both from the perspective of the individual stories and the sheer sense of achievement that we, the British people, for all our faults and squabbles, created this amazing thing – a free, universal health service. There were more than a few tears shed as we watched outdoors in the foothills of the Welsh mountains Bevan walked and where is the idea of an NHS was fertilised.
Sheers’ work is also a call to arms. The film-poem is told in three parts.’Birth’ and ‘Life’ are celebrations, but the final section, ‘Death – before you even saw’, shows an NHS that is being surreptitiously hollowed out, dying from the inside. First there was the introduction of a costly and inefficient “internal market”, then the sweeteners for public-private partnerships that get paid a twelve percent premium over NHS departments for every patient they treat, alongside the time-bomb of PFI (the Public Finance Initiative), building and refurbishing hundreds of hospitals, but at the price of a £240 billion mortgage to private ‘partners’ for work that could have been far more cost-effectively delivered through public works.
Hospital staff in the film-poem are shown as becoming increasingly militant in trying to defend the original ideal of a united service providing free and universal healthcare. Eighty-eight per cent of Britons support that principle we are told. But, as Kemi, a young doctor, says, “It’s odd isn’t it? I mean, it feels as if, in seventy years, we’ve done a complete turn, 180-degrees. At the birth of this it was a minister of health who had the vision, believed, was inspirational, and the BMA who were sceptical. Now, it feels the other way round and it’s the doctors who are fighting to save the idea while government, well, it’s almost like they’ve given up on it.”
Bevan forced through the National Health Service while Britain was emerging from the horrors and privations of six years of brutal global war, with the country massively in debt to the USA, battered by German bombs, and needing to provide for hundreds of thousands of injured soldiers and civilians. The NHS epitomises the response of the 1945-51 post-war Labour government, pushed on by radicalised public opinion, which was to invest in a better and more just future so that the sacrifices of millions of ordinary citizens to defeat fascism were made worthwhile, paid for by a (relatively minor) redistribution of wealth.
Contrast that with the ten years of austerity that we are still enduring, where the selfish minority whose greed created a global economic crisis have been bailed out, using the resources contributed to the public purse by the majority, and the price we are all being made to pay is to slash vital public services that benefit everyone.
It’s easy to feel the world is turning backwards, but as Alice, a dying, older woman, whose dialogue closes out the poem suggests, what happens next is up to us:
“[T]o create such a monument to the communal, yet able to care for the individual as well, it’s one of the most wondrous things we’ve done. So thinking about all that, the chain, what I fear is this: being one of the generations who having inherited this beautiful solution, will stop seeing its wonder, until it becomes so diluted, well, it’s gone. Yes, it’s that I don’t want to pass on an age of squander. No, my grandchildren, and everyone else’s, they deserve something better. I don’t know, I suppose it’s as simple, really, as wanting to leave more light in your wake than shadow.”
That’s what the majority of British citizens wanted seventy years ago too, when they voted out Britain’s greatest war leader, Winston Churchill, with due gratitude, in favour of a government that would put the majority first in peace time.
As Jeremy Corbyn said in Tredegar, Nye Bevan’s birthplace, last week, “If we are serious about fulfilling Nye Bevan’s dream of building a society that looks after everybody then we need to transform our economy so that it doesn’t just work in the interests of the few.” For the first time in my lifetime we have a Labour leader who both genuinely shares the ideals that led to the creation of the NHS and demonstrates the courage necessary to deliver on them in office. Maybe seventy years is just about the right time for a new beginning?