When the Health and Social Care Bill was passed into law at the start of 2012 it elicited one of those usually impotent hashtag campaigns seen so often on Twitter – where thousands of people using the same tag manifest the strength of the collective will.
The source of the phrase ‘lower than vermin’ is a speech made by Aneurin Bevan – then minister of health – at a Labour Party rally on 4 July 1948 on the eve of the launch of the National Health Service that he himself had devised. The form the NHS took was inspired – according to Bevan’s account – by the self-organised free-at-the-point-of-use health service set up by workers in Tredegar – the small mining town in the Sirhowy Valley where he was born and raised and where he began his political career.
Although he had the backing of the prime minister Clement Attlee and although there was cross-party support for the Beveridge Report – which committed the government to some form of universal healthcare – the NHS was forced through in the teeth of opposition from the British Medical Association. One of its achievements was to unify and nationalise the various municipal religious and charitable hospitals – something that was at least as important to Bevan – in eliminating profit-seeking in healthcare – as making care free to patients.
It is probably the most radical institution ever built in the UK yet the speech in which Bevan announced its inception is remembered not so much for his trumpeting of the achievement as for his bitter reminders of what made it necessary: ‘No attempts at ethical or social seduction can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation.’
He had in mind the treatment of people like his father David who as Bevan put it was ‘choked to death’ by pneumoconiosis (a lung condition caused by long-term inhalation of coal dust) – but received no compensation since the condition wasn’t classified as an industrial disease under the Workmen’s Compensation Act.