The National Health Service stands as probably the most beloved institution in the UK, one of the core defining traits of life in the British isles, having outlived some slightly wonkier ideas such as the ZX Spectrum and The Bay City Rollers. It may not be the only one of its kind in the world, and it may not be the first of its kind – the communist Soviet Union implemented something similar albeit with less success in the vast rural swathes of that country, whilst New Zealand had abolished almost all health-care fees by 1941 – but Britain’s NHS has probably been the most successful and longest-running attempt at a genuinely free healthcare service.
The roots of the NHS and its founder, Aneurin Bevan go back further than just the date of its formation on July 5 1948. It’s part of a long intellectual and political struggle for equal access to healthcare as well as fairer working conditions and a welfare safety net for the poorest in society. Germany’s Bismarck (who, it must be said, was no bleeding-heart socialist) created the world’s first welfare system through legislation in the 1880s, which in turn influenced Britain’s Liberal party to introduce welfare legislation in the first decade of the 20th century. The theory, so it went, was that it would appease the working classes enough so that the spectre of Marxism that had begun haunting Europe would then abate – and of course we only have to look at the Russian Revolution in 1917 to see what happens when you don’t appease the citizenry.
For Tredegar-born Nye Bevan, the NHS was the culmination of decades of struggle in the coal pits of the Welsh Valleys, as well as working-class areas across Britain. Here, life expectancy was always at its lowest (and in many cases, it still is), with the low wages across these areas ensuring that families were unable to pay for proper care when their relatives fell ill – and in the physically demanding spaces that they worked in this was common. The fight towards something approaching a welfare state began as far back as the early 19th century, with the Merthyr Rising in 1831 and the Chartist’s March along the Blackwood to Newport valley in 1839 marking two of the first flashpoints. In both cases, workers marched against low wages and poor conditions. In both cases, it ended with violence as British soldiers were ordered to fire upon the marchers. Over a century later, with many hard-fought victories along the way, the NHS was born, perhaps the culminating achievement of the rights people fought for.
To mark this momentous date, the good people over at National Theatre of Wales have put together a packed programme full of highlights. We’ve covered Rachel Trezise’s Cotton Fingers (Wed 4-Sat 7 July) in June’s issue, whilst the hilarious Laughter Is The Best Medicine over at Camarthen’s Lyric Theatre on Sat 21 July is covered on the next page. Particular highlights elsewhere include the five-part Love Letters To The NHS, a series of plays designed to highlight and pay tribute to particular elements of the NHS. Cotton Fingers is one, but Come Back Tomorrow (The Chapel at Singleton Hospital, Swansea, Wed 26-Fri 28), written by Roy Williams, looks to be quite exciting, telling the story of a woman coming to work in the NHS as a nurse from Jamaica in 1952 as well as her granddaughter 50 years apart. Given the Windrush scandal, expect that one to be tempered with a quiet fury.
Elsewhere, Welsh music stalwart Gruff Rhys is releasing a single to coincide with the NHS, entitled No Profit In Pain, but perhaps the most intriguing project will be As Long As The Heart Beats (various departments across the Royal Gwent, Newport, Sat 21 + Sun 22 July) – a site-specific work, co-directed by Marcus Rommer and Ben Tinniswood, which will collate stories by a number of patients and NHS employees into an interactive journey, celebrating some of the NHS’ most groundbreaking work and greatest achievements. Here’s to another 70 years of the NHS, and then some!
Throughout July. Tickets: prices vary. Info: www.nationaltheatrewales.org