The movie “Dunkirk” recounts an astounding story of courage and self-sacrifice, without which Hitler might have won World War II. One can draw a straight line from Britain’s heroic solidarity in the war to the welfare state that emerged in peacetime.
Set in 1940, the movie features two sets of heroes. One is the military forces. We see British soldiers waiting in orderly lines for rescue from a French beach as German forces shoot, shell and bomb them. And we see British airmen taking tremendous losses in fierce aerial fights over the English Channel, all to protect their countrymen on the beaches.
It was of these Royal Air Force pilots that Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The other heroes are civilians who, at Churchill’s urging, sailed their fishing boats, pleasure craft and ferries to rescue compatriots stranded in Dunkirk’s shallow waters. Churchill had expected that only 35,000 of his 400,000 soldiers would get back home. The small-boat armada evacuated 330,000.
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What does this have to do with the welfare state? Three years later, when the Allies appeared headed for victory, Churchill broadcast his plan for postwar Britain. It called for, among other things, establishing a National Health Service to medically insure everyone “from cradle to grave.”
Though a Conservative, Churchill understood that the shared suffering demanded a new social compact. The rewards of peacetime also had to be shared.
The actor Mark Rylance portrays a civilian steering his boat into grave danger with steely resolve. To prepare for the part, he studied firsthand accounts of the battle.
”The tone of society was different at that time,” Rylance said in a CBS interview. “There was a selflessness and a belief in communal effort and togetherness.” British society today is much more centered on the individual, he added.
America has always been that way. But this country did create the GI Bill in 1944 for returning servicemen. It established veterans hospitals, provided low-interest mortgages, paid for college or trade schools and dispensed billions in unemployment compensation.
In 1945, President Harry Truman proposed a “universal” national health insurance program. Democrats backed the idea. Republicans killed it.
The American idea of “every man for himself” surfaced in attacks on Obamacare’s requirement that insurance plans cover a variety of conditions. Rep. John Shimkus voiced that view with radical clarity when the Illinois Republican complained that the law’s mandated benefits have forced men to purchase prenatal care.
(Suppose insurers could offer women cheaper policies that don’t cover prostate cancer. Imagine what men with the cancer would have to pay for their coverage.)
In the spring of 1945, the war in Europe had just ended, and Britain’s exhausted voters delivered a political shock. They replaced their great warrior Churchill with Clement Attlee, a Labour Party leader who called for a more comprehensive welfare state.
For all the complaints about the National Health Service, the NHS remains a third rail in British politics. When Conservative Margaret Thatcher campaigned in 1983, she said the NHS would be “safe with us.” She wanted some privatizing done but would never have uttered the words “repeal and replace.”
This country is different. But do note that once a modicum of health care security was extended to all Americans, there was no going back.
Without an acceptable replacement on the table, “repeal and replace” was obviously just “repeal.” No amount of legislative gimmickry could hide that fact. Many Americans might recoil at the term “welfare state,” but when it comes to health care, they clearly want at least some of it.
The writer is a syndicated columnist.