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Socialism and the British National Health Service

Abstract

This paper examines some of the key characteristics of a socialist health care system using the example of the British National Health Service (NHS). It has been claimed that the NHS has socialist principles, and represents an island of socialism in a capitalist sea. However, using historical analysis, this paper argues that while the NHS claims some socialist ends, they could never be fully achieved because of the lack of socialist means. The socialist mechanisms which were associated with earlier plans for a national health service such as a salaried service, health centres, elected health authorities and divorcing private practice from the public service were discarded in negotiation. Moreover, even these would have achieved socialism merely in the sense of distributing health care, without any deeper transformation associated with doctor-patient relationships and prevention. In short, the NHS is more correctly seen as nationalised rather than socialised medicine, achieving the first three levels of a socialist health service identified here. It can be said to have socialist principles in the limited distributional sense and has some socialist means to achieve these. However, it lacks the stronger means to fully achieve its distributional goals, and is very distant from the third level of a radical transformation of health care.

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Powell, M. Socialism and the British National Health Service. Health Care Anal 5, 187–194 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02678377

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02678377

Keywords

  • National Health Service
  • Socialist Health
  • Socialist Health Policy
  • Labour Party
  • Universal Service