Why marches like this weekend’s NHS rally are worth it

Some people will have seen Owen Smith MP’s tweet that said the NHS march was pointless and only legislation matters. It is a ludicrous point of view and smacks of the deepest social conservatism. It is easy to point to the mass agitation that led to votes in general and votes for women in particular as an example of how movements outside parliament led to reform within. The Ford women’s equal pay strike is another obvious example, paving the way for the 1974 Act.
The story of the birth of the NHS is also one that indicates social change does not just come about because a group of wise legislators wills it. Liberal voices for health care provision were strengthened when hundreds of thousands of maimed servicemen returned home from the First World War. Both within the Labour and Liberal parties, there were campaigns to develop better health care. Even the then Liberal Winston Churchill talked about reform.
The Socialist Medical Association was founded in 1930 to pursue the aim of a National Health Service. Rationing and the war economy in the Second World War changed attitudes to health care and rationing helped change attitudes to the state being involved. The 1941 report by the Liberal Beveridge identified the Five Giant Evils: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. These summarised social inequalities targeted previously by the tenants’ movements and unemployed marches of the 1930s.
This finally led to the NHS Act 1946 and in1948 the founding of the NHS itself. The two men most identified with this were Aneurin Bevan from mining stock in South Wales, briefly expelled for links with the Communist Party’s Popular Front and Clement Attlee who had worked in poor districts of East London. This history shows an intimate link between agitation, political organisation, historic events and legislation. As a South Wales MP, you would think Mr Smith might know some of this.

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