‘THE increasing complexity of hospital administration was liable to lead to excessive preoccupation with means and accordingly the danger that the hospital may tend increasingly to be run in the interests of those working in and for the hospital, rather than in the interests of the patients.’
‘I am against the monopoly enjoyed by the BBC. For eleven years they kept me off the air, they prevented me from expressing views which proved to be right. Their behaviour has been tyrannical. They are honeycombed with Socialists – probably with Communists.’
These two quotations mirror views which are often expressed in the articles and comments on this site, but both remarks were made in 1952! The first came from one of the architects of the welfare state, Richard Titmuss, then recently appointed to the London University Chair of Social Administration, in a speech to the Institute of Hospital Administrators.
The second was by Winston Churchill, then the Prime Minister, in response to a speech by Lord Reith in the House of Lords, in which he’d said ‘the introduction of commercial television would be a national disaster comparable to dog-racing, smallpox and the bubonic plague’. Clearly not the man to ask to give a home to a retired greyhound.
Both quotes are to be found in a book I’ve been reading during these long days of isolation, a social history of Britain 1951-57, called Family Britain, by David Kynaston. This is the second in a series that began with Austerity Britain, covering 1945-51. If, like me, you are a baby boomer from the immediate post-war generation, they are books guaranteed to open a kaleidoscope of memories. They also resonate during this time of lockdown, with the recurring talk of queues for everything, rationing, financial deprivation and hopeless administration by every branch of authority.
Both books make use of remarks from the public and diaries written at the time, and both sources show that distaste for politicians was just as widespread then as it is seventy years later. One story from the first book provides a typical example. As part of the effort to clear the slums in the big cities, the Labour government planned a number of New Towns to be built, one of which was to be sited in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. Not all the locals were impressed by the announcement that their small town of around 6,000 people would be expected to welcome 50,000 new residents from the East End.
The Labour Minister of Housing, Lewis Silkin, was sent to address a meeting in the town hall, which was attended by about half the population, most listening to loudspeakers outside the small building. Silkin simply bulldozed any objections: ‘It’s no good your jeering, it’s going to be done.’ He ended his speech: ‘The project will go forward, because it must go forward – Stevenage will in a short time become world famous (audience laughter). People from all over the world will come to Stevenage to see how we here in this country are building a new way of life.’
As Silkin left, there were shouts of ‘Gestapo’ and ‘Dictator’, and when he returned to his ministerial car, he found that the tyres had been let down and sand put into the petrol tank. A few weeks later, Stevenage did become world famous when the national press printed pictures of the signs at the local railway station replaced by ones reading ‘Silkingrad’.
Another pattern reported then still applies today: evidence that the Conservative Party was just as lacking in genuine conservatives before Mrs Thatcher as it has been since. Kynaston reports that after their 1951 election victory the Tories made no attempt to reform the NHS or the welfare state, and reversed only two of the Labour nationalisations (steel and road haulage). The goal of full employment remained sacrosanct, rent controls stayed in place and the positions and privileges of the trade unions were enhanced. In general there was a failure of nerve for fear of another defeat like that of 1945, which led to the long decline through the 60s and 70s that many of us will remember.
Crucially, a bold financial plan called (rather oddly) Operation Robot, which would have made sterling a convertible currency and floated the pound to find its own level, was narrowly voted down by the Cabinet. One dissenting voice, that of Lord Salisbury, Lord Privy Seal in the 1951 government, probably sums up the decision: ‘Even if the case for this change was clear, it would be very difficult to persuade the public to accept it. Moreover, the adoption of this policy would create an unbridgeable gap between the Government and the Opposition.’ Well, we obviously can’t allow that sort of thing, can we?
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.