Massey’s secret meeting to help form the NHS – 75 years on

Massey’s secret meeting to help form the NHS – 75 years on

As we celebrate the formation of the National Health Service (NHS) on 5th July 1948, we reflect on Massey Shaw’s secretive role off the coast of Southend on an unconfirmed date in July 1947.

The summer crowds at the end of Southend pier would have seen Massey Shaw, cruising off the pierhead, but would have had no idea about the meeting taking place on board and the importance it would have.

Massey Shaw would have been well known at the time due to her role in the Dunkirk evacuations as part of the Dunkirk Little Ships flotilla saving troops from the beaches in WWII and helping to save St Paul’s Cathedral during Blitz time.

As the Massey Shaw cruised in slow circles, two of her passengers, giants of 20th century politics, set the seal on a vast pioneering undertaking that was to transform British society.

One of the two men was Herbert Morrison, deputy prime minister and leader of the House of Commons, a man thought by many to be more powerful in some ways than the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee.

Like his grandson, Peter Mandelson, Morrison was recognised as the master fixer and backroom boss of the Labour Party. The other man was Aneurin Bevan, minister for health and the man widely recognised as the architect of the health service.

Seventy-five years on, the NHS is an accepted part of life. It can be hard to grasp the fierceness of the struggle to bring it into being, or the tortuousness of the negotiations involved.

“The contest resembled a game of poker,” Labour leader Michael Foot wrote in his account of the negotiations.

Bevan was pitched against the Conservative Party in opposition, of course, along with the British Medical Association. But he was also on shaky ground when it came to sections of his own party. A delegation of Labour back-benchers had approached Bevan and urged him to modify his scheme.

“The wise way to start such an ambitious undertaking is by stages,” they suggested.

But for Bevan it was all or nothing. He believed a gradualist approach would create nothing but an insipid and useless compromise, rather than the great model of a universally free health service he had pursued for much of his life.

But he needed the full support of the party to deliver it, and his old rival Morrison was the lord of the rank and file parliamentarians.

The framework they bashed out between them during their top secret meeting aboard the Massey Shaw was designed to create a workable political strategy that would gain the full backing of the Labour Party.

It also clinched the details in Bevan’s scheme to nationalise hospitals and turn the majority of doctors and other medical staff into state employees. A lot of business was done on that boat ride.

By the time Bevan and Morrison stepped off the Massey Shaw back in central London, the strategy was in place. Exactly one year later, in July 1948, the National Health Act became law, creating the world’s first national health service in a major country. More than 45,000 doctors and 2,688 hospitals were now controlled by the Department of Health.

“It seems to have happened overnight,” the Daily Herald commented. The speed with which this new design took shape owed a lot to that pact between Morrison and Bevan, hammered out afloat on the estuary.

Extracts taken from original article by Tom King;

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