The National Health Service, we have been told, is the closest thing we now have to a religion in Britain. Yet we are also acutely aware that this is an institution whose very future is now regularly in question. Through our new People’s History of the NHS website, and with the help of the public, we are hoping to better understand what the NHS has meant to the British people from its opening in 1948 up to its forthcoming 70th anniversary in 2018. Such a history is of obvious importance in relation to current challenges faced by the NHS. Those contributing to this history will have strong feelings on this. However we also need to remain open minded about what we will discover through a People’s History of the NHS. We appreciate the power of certain assumptions about the meaning of the NHS, but we also know that the history of meaning, belief, and experience has yet to be fully researched. Without this history those assumptions rest on fragile ground. Uncovering the People’s History of the NHS may confirm some of our assumptions, but it may also unearth surprises.

With the support of the WellcomeTrust, a team of historians at the University of Warwick will coordinate and facilitate the People’s History website. The website aims to reach out to anyone and everyone, whether this is just to read about its findings, or to contribute views, memories, and historical materials. The website will be the home for a truly collaborative history, a place for debate, and a venue for fresh thinking about what the NHS has meant.

The NHS has always been a site for campaigning interests, an institution around which issues of access and equality, choice, community care and accountability, amongst others, have been debated. As a campaigning group the Socialist Health Association has long been active in campaigns against NHS charges, lack of patient choice, inequality and more recently around achieving a Better NHS and Keeping the NHS Public. These issues, and the place of campaigning groups within the history of the NHS, are important in our examination of the meaning of the NHS in wider British cultural life.

Pages from the first leaflet introducing NHS to British Public in 1948.

We invite your members – doctors, nurses, therapists, dentists, managers, pharmacists, academics, scientists and patients both inside and outside the NHS – to tell us their ‘NHS stories’ on our website. Here members of the public can sign up to become part of our extended research team. The website will provide details of events around the country that will bring people and communities together to discuss their histories of the NHS. The MyNHS members’ section will also enable members of the public to submit their own stories, suggest topics for research, and respond to regular calls for information and memories on particular issues.

We will use your memories, stories and opinions to contribute to a People’s Encylopaedia of the NHS. This will examine the history of meaning through an expanding series of encyclopaedia entries. Some of the headings will no doubt be obvious, but others will offer new perspectives. The entries will touch on issues often missing from the standard histories of politics and policy, triggering memories, raising new historical questions, and crucially acting as a catalyst for a new history of experience, meaning and belief. The aim is to encourage reflection, but also at times to surprise, amuse, and provoke.

We will also use your memories, and any photographs of objects that you may send us – campaigning flyers, leaflets, cartoons – to create a Virtual Museum of the NHS. Given its place in the national psyche, it is rather extraordinary that there is no museum of the NHS, and our website will host the first one. Arranged in a series of themed Galleries, which will be regularly opened over the course of the project, the Virtual Museum will look to the cooperation of the public in helping to unearth a material and visual culture of the NHS that is fast in danger of being lost.

We feel that our ‘People’s History’ is of obvious importance in relation to current challenges faced by the NHS. Those contributing to this history will have strong feelings regarding this. However we also need to remain open-minded about what we will discover through a People’s History of the NHS. We appreciate the power of certain assumptions about the meaning of the NHS, but we also know that the history of meaning, belief, and experience has yet to be fully researched. Without this history those assumptions rest on fragile ground. Uncovering the People’s History of the NHS may confirm some of these assumptions, but it may also unearth surprises. We cannot write this history ourselves, and so invite you to tell us why the NHS matters to you; how you feel that this institution has changed over time; and anything else besides!

We hope that members of the Socialist Health Association, as a campaigning group, can contribute important perspectives on collective action aimed at creating an integrated healthcare system. We hope to encourage you to contribute your perspectives, beliefs and memories on the NHS to the People’s History website. There are lots of areas of crossover between your collection of materials and our historical findings. From issues around choice, primary care and prescription charges to obesity and exercise, food policy and social policy, we feel the contributions of the Socialist Health Association would both complement and enhance our historical understanding of the place of the NHS in British society.

You can visit the website at: http://peopleshistorynhs.org/

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One Comment

  1. Eric Watts says:

    Very good idea – If you do not already have a piece on Prof Harry Keen from Guys. who died in 2013 I suggest you check out the Ken Loach film The Spirit of 45 in which he describes his first visit as a GP in the new NHS to a family fearful that they could not afford to pay for his visit.

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