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This name is seldom, if ever, on the lips of man in the street. So begins Max Beerbohm’s delightful essay on T. Fenning Dodworth.

The same might be said of Sir Henry Willink. Yesterday I lunched with two Conservatives somewhat younger than myself. “Never heard of him,” one of them said, and the other nodded.

Nor was Willink, who served in Churchill’s wartime coalition as Minister of Health from 1943-45, the kind of man to court publicity. A certain reticence is apparent even in his great, two-minute appearance on Pathé News in July 1944 (see above), shown again during the speech by Jeremy Hunt, the current Health Secretary, to the Conservative Party Conference last October.

In clipped, kindly and authoritative tones, Willink announces the formation of the National Health Service:

“Whatever your income, if you want to use the service – and no one is going to try to make you, unless you want to – there’ll be no charge for treatment. The National Health Service will include family doctors whom you choose for yourselves, and who will attend you in your own homes when this is necessary.

“It’ll cover any medicines you may need, specialist advice, and of course hospital treatment whatever the illness, special care for mothers and children, and a lot of other things besides.”

Willink, Conservative MP for Croydon North, was explaining how the 1944 White Paper on Health would lead to the creation of the NHS.

Conservative, Labour and Liberal members of the Government had already agreed on the need, identified in the Beveridge Report in 1942, to provide health care for everyone free at the point of use, to replace the previous insurance system, which covered fewer than half of the working population.

As Churchill himself put it in March 1944, speaking as Prime Minister:

“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 in the same way that the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humble cottage as readily as it will give it 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.”

It fell to Willink – described by Sheila Lawlor, Director of Politeia and an authority on the period, as “one of the most intellectually able” members of the coalition – to work out how to achieve this.

He set about the task in a spirit of consensus, telling Pathé News viewers:

“It’s not a cut and dried scheme. These proposals are for discussion in Parliament and we want them talked about by everyone concerned, and you, everyone in this audience, are very much concerned.”

The nearer the scheme came to fruition, the more concerned the British Medical Association grew about the effect it would have on their members’ private practice. Willink made a number of concessions to the BMA, agreeing that doctors would not – as had originally been envisaged – be grouped as salaried employees into health centres under local authority control.

Yet the role of the Conservatives, under Churchill’s leadership, in the development of the NHS is today entirely forgotten, and so is Willink’s contribution. If one attempts to set the record straight, the Left responds with insults and incredulity.

For in the foundation of the NHS, the mighty figure of Nye Bevan, appointed Minister of Health after Labour’s landslide victory in the general election of July 1945, blots everyone else out.

Since Bevan actually carried the legislation through Parliament, it would be ridiculous to seek to deny his role. All one would like to do (but probably can’t) is to persuade people that he does not deserve to monopolise the credit for the building of the NHS, which was the fruit of a highly developed tradition of medicine, and of political work by many other hands too. As his biographer, John Campbell, observes:

“Bevan’s one indelible claim on the notice of history is that he was the the founder of the National Health Service. This was probably – certainly by popular acclaim – the Attlee Government’s greatest achievement…and Bevan was the Minister who carried it through. That credit can never be taken away from him. At the same time it must be said that too much can be claimed for him, and in Labour mythology often is. As a result of subsequent events between 1948 and 1951, culminating in his resignation from the Government, Bevan and his most ardent disciples tended increasingly to represent the Health Service as his personal creation. This was both politically and psychologically understandable at a time when he seemed alone to be defending the pure principle of a free service against attack from all sides. Nevertheless it was a distortion of the long and cumulative process by which the Service came into existence in 1948… There can be no doubt that some form of National Health Service would have come into being after 1945 whoever had won the General Election.”

Bevan faced the difficult question of how to combine the voluntary hospitals, supported by private endowments and local charity, with the municipal (often former Poor Law) hospitals run by local authorities.

Willink had drawn up a draft Bill which included complicated provisions to do this, and thereby to preserve a large measure of local autonomy for the voluntary hospitals, which enjoyed, in Campbell’s words, “an immense fund of goodwill, particularly in the local Conservative Associations with whom they were often closely identified”, and were also strongly supported by the doctors, who detested the idea of coming under local authority control.

Bevan instead decided on the bold stroke of nationalising all hospitals, voluntary and municipal. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

“This prompted Willink to move a hostile amendment when the National Health Service Bill was carried on second reading in the House of Commons in May 1946. His action, though based on the conviction that the development of hospital provision would be retarded, left the Conservatives open to the later charge that they were lukewarm about the National Health Service.”

The NHS was not going to succeed without the support of the hospital consultants, so Bevan “stuffed their mouths with gold” and left them with a large measure of autonomy.

The BMA nevertheless denounced Bevan as a dictator. His opponents sounded so hysterical they played into his hands, and made him appear much more thoroughly socialist than he really was.

For like Willink before him, Bevan was forced to make concessions to the doctors, who, for example, could still look after private patients in pay beds within the nationalised hospitals.

The shrieks of the BMA, acting as a trade union bent on defending its members’ rights, during the long period leading up to the official start of the NHS on 5 July 1948, intensified the impression that the Conservatives were opposed in principle to the new service.

Bevan himself was capable of being tremendously abusive, and just as the NHS was launched, denounced the Tories as “lower than vermin”. His partisanship prompted many voters to think the Tories might not be so bad after all, but helped win him a lasting place in political history.

Willink had by then retired from the fray, in January 1948 resigning his parliamentary seat and becoming Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in which post he remained until 1966, also for a time serving as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge.  He was a highly cultivated man, with no taste for vituperation, and neither the ability nor the desire to match Bevin as a political pugilist.

Nor could he impress on the wider public his party’s devotion to the NHS. After 1945 he disliked combining Opposition duties with his legal practice, and his health began to suffer.

Born in Liverpool in 1894, he won a scholarship to Eton in the same year, 1906, as Harold Macmillan, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Willink confirmed his academic ability by becoming a scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, but joined up as soon as the First World War broke out and distinguished himself as a Gunner, being awarded the MC and Croix de Guerre, and mentioned in despatches.

In 1920 he was called to the Bar, in 1935 he took silk, and in 1940 he entered the Commons at a by-election. He was very soon put to work as a commissioner charged with rehousing people who had been bombed out in London, and from 1943 he served as Minister of Health.

He saw that the question, as Sheila Lawlor puts it, was not whether there was going to be an NHS, “but whether this would be state controlled and run, or built on a nationally co-ordinated system of doctors and hospitals with professional freedom, and accountable to patients.”

He and his party lost that argument, with consequences which continue to this day.

In 1957, Willink was created a baronet. His elder son, who became Sir Charles Willink, was a distinguished classicist who was a friend and contemporary of Douglas Hurd at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, and later sprang to wider attention, at least among readers of The Times, by campaigning successfully for the reconstruction of an ancient Greek trireme.

49 comments for: Profile: Henry Willink, the Conservative who proposed a National Health Service before Bevan created one

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