Britain Gave Up Its Empire for the NHS. Was It Worth It?

A sign thanking nhs staff and all key workers is seen in the parade ring at Ascot Racecourse on June 14, in England.
Edward Whitaker/Pool/Getty Images

Britain Gave Up Its Empire for the NHS. Was It Worth It?

Both the British Empire and its National Health Service (nhs) are very much in the news—for very different reasons. But the two are intimately connected.

Politician Nigel Lawson famously quipped that “the nhs is the closest thing the English people have to a religion.” Over the course of the coronavirus outbreak, people across the country have stood outside their front doors at 8 p.m. every Thursday to applaud the nhs. Church services may be canceled, but this ritual went on.

Activists and business leaders have called for a repeat performance this Sunday, the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the nhs. They’ve called for an “epic” applause, “the biggest ‘thank you’ the country has ever seen.”

Our whole coronavirus response was dictated by the mantra of “Save the nhs.” Patients were shipped out of hospitals and into care homes, where the virus spread to the most vulnerable. Care homes aren’t run by the nhs, so they weren’t deemed worthy of protection.

The National Health Service is just about the only British institution the mainstream media deems acceptable to be proud of. It has been called “our greatest achievement as a nation” and even “one of the greatest achievements of civilization.”

At the same time, what was once regarded as one of Britain’s greatest achievements—the British Empire—is under constant criticism. Anyone who had anything to do with it has had his or her memory come under attack. As a nation we’ve been told we should apologize for this shameful history.

Is the nhs really the only great thing Britain has done? It is an important question to answer. This history teaches a critical lesson on how great nations rise and fall—and even on how to reach your full potential individually.

‘Free Aspirin and False Teeth’

Before World War ii was even over, Britain thrust Prime Minister Winston Churchill out of office and brought in new Labour leadership. Promising housing, jobs, social reform and even socialism, they won by a landslide. From then on, British politics would go in a dramatically new direction.

The Labour government set up the welfare state. It established the National Health Service and saw health-care spending almost double from £6 billion in 1948 to £11 billion in 1951. A new social security system was set up, with National Insurance contributions to pay off pensions and unemployment benefits.

To protect jobs, the state nationalized vast tracts of British industry.

At the same time, the nation turned away from empire.

The new government decided to give India independence. It wasn’t even controversial; Parliament didn’t bother holding a formal vote, as it was clear Indian independence had very few opponents.

This was just the beginning of the retreat from empire.

Defense spending, necessary to make Britain a major power, suffered cut after cut. For many, January 1968 marks the official end of the British Empire. Then Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that Britain would withdraw all its forces east of the Suez Canal. It was the only way he could see to cap defense spending so the money could be redirected to welfare. Bases across the Middle East and Asia were abandoned.

United States Secretary of State Dean Rusk was incredulous. He said that he “could not believe that free aspirin and false teeth were more important than Britain’s role in the world.”

Harold Wilson disagreed—as would probably most in Britain today.

What was the result?

It was a disaster on every front.

The Fall of an Empire

Britain’s sudden lack of interest in empire created problems around the world. Britain’s policy was “confusion and irresolution,” writes historian Paul Johnson in his book Modern Times. “There was a failure of vision, a collapse of will. In 1945, Britain controlled one third of the world. No nation had ever carried such wide-ranged responsibilities. Twenty-five years later, everything had gone. History had never before witnessed a transformation of such extent and rapidity.”

In country after country, Britain handed power not to the people, but to a new group of elite. “India illustrates the process whereby the full-time professional politician inherited the Earth in the 20th century,” Johnson writes. “Reforms created an alien system of representation. A class of men, mainly lawyers, organized themselves to manipulate it. In due course, the governing power was handed over to them. The dialogue was entirely between the old and the new elites. The ordinary people did not come into the play, except as a gigantic walk-on crowd in the background. The process was to be repeated all over Asia and Africa.”

“Lenin’s Bolsheviks of 1917, Mao’s [Chinese Communist Party] cadres of 1949, and the Congressmen of India came to power by different routes,” he writes. “But they had this in common. All three new ruling groups were men who had engaged in any other occupation except politics and had devoted their lives to the exploitation of a flexible concept called ‘democracy.’”

In India, the lack of British interest, incompetence of British officials, and hurried handover to these new elites resulted in disaster. As British authorities pulled out, the ethnic tensions they’d kept under control exploded. Somewhere in the region of 1 million people were killed in the violence—though estimates vary wildly. Around 5 million were forced to flee their homes. India and Pakistan went on to fight four wars against each other, and are currently in a frosty nuclear stand-off.

Yet the Labour government presented the withdrawal as a great achievement. Lord Mountbatten, who was responsible for it, said that “only a hundred thousand people had died.” He was lying about the numbers. But even if that figure were correct, that’s a pretty huge “only.”

Historian Andrew Roberts writes in his book The History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, “This represents one of the most shameful moments in the history of the English-speaking peoples in the 20th century.”

But it played out over and again. In country after country, horrible leaders came to power because Britain suddenly lost interest in empire. Britain’s focus was inward. There was no will to uphold the empire. There was no global vision. Look at some of the men who came to power as Britain pulled out: Ugandan President Idi Amin, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Even if Britain had some kind of vision for a responsible drawdown of the Empire, things could have been different. But instead of putting the Empire down carefully, we dropped it; and in the resulting smash, millions died or were forced to live under tyranny.


The inward focus on welfare and the nhs also failed. As Britain turned from empire to improve life at home, the new policies often ended up causing great harm.

When Attlee became prime minister in July 1945, between V-E day and V-J Day, the greatest long-term threat to his country was that she would squander the opportunities she had won and thereby hamstring future generations of Britons,” writes Roberts. “Over a quarter of her national wealth had been lost in the previous six years of war, so the vast sums of Marshall Aid that were being directed from America desperately needed to be spent rebuilding her industrial and transport infrastructure and making her economy competitive again. Instead of doing that, Attlee effectively wasted it on trying to build the utopian society which socialists in those heady days called ‘the New Jerusalem.’”

By 1950, Britain was investing 9 percent of its economy into industry and infrastructure. In Germany, that figure was 19 percent.

As the government nationalized major industries, it focused on ensuring everyone had a job. It sounds great on paper—and it’s something the left still pushes today. But government-run industries—with no need to make a profit and led by administrators focused on maximizing jobs—soon became horribly inefficient. Nationalization killed the British manufacturing industry. In 1950, the United Kingdom produced more than half of the world’s vehicle exports. But as the effects of nationalization kicked in, British car production became horribly inefficient. Now no major car manufacturers are still owned by British companies. Only once all traces of nationalization were erased by foreign-owned car companies hoovering up the wreckage was car manufacturing restored to profitability.

This wasn’t just the result of government action. Every major party promised to bring in many social reforms in the 1945 election. Labour won because its promises were deemed the most credible. There was massive national appetite for this—and this expressed itself through more than voting. Two weeks after Germany surrendered in 1945, the bus service in Berlin was back up and running. In London, it wasn’t; bus drivers were on strike.

The Vision of Empire

The key point here is the focus. I can understand why people wanted a National Health Service. If one of your loved ones gets sick, and your only hope for recovery is some kind of expensive cure, the idea that he or she could die for lack of money is horrifying. And British society did have major inequalities. Many people lived in poverty that I, as a citizen of modern Britain, have never experienced. I can understand why they wanted the government to help them have more wealth and security.

But look at the change in Britain’s focus. The 18th-century era of the British Empire began with a desire to make the world a better place. British diplomacy and the Royal Navy helped stamp out slavery around the world. For men of this time, their first experience of empire had been in fighting Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt at world domination. In the anti-slavery battle, they saw an inkling of something different: an empire that didn’t seek merely to conquer vast territories or exalt one man. Instead, Britain caught a new vision of an empire that could better all mankind. “[F]or many Victorian Englishmen, the instinct of empire was first to be rationalized as a call to Christian duty” (Heaven’s Command).

In 1850, Prime Minister Lord John Russel rose in Parliament to defend Britain’s continued efforts to stamp out the slave trade overseas. He told the house that “if we are to give up this high and holy work, and proclaim ourselves no longer fitted to lead in the championship against the curse and the crime of slavery, then we have no longer a right to expect a continuance of those blessings, which, by God’s favor, we have so long enjoyed.”

This was the view of many in that era: Expand the Empire as a force for good, and God would bless them.

Was that always done perfectly? No. Were there some very selfish individuals involved in that pursuit? Yes. Was there a lot of self-righteousness in that? Absolutely.

But this outward focus created an empire that benefited the world, that sent its wealth, men, ideas and institutions abroad. Historian Niall Ferguson writes in his book Empire, “[T]he fact remains that no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labor than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world.”

When Britain had this grand, outward vision, it rose. And when Britain turned inward, it fell.

That’s the power in this kind of vision of empire.

In his Trumpet Brief yesterday, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry focused on Winston Churchill’s vision of empire. “There was a selfless, altruistic, noble dimension to his devotion” to the British Empire, he wrote.

But in 1945, almost no one shared that vision.

“Human history has certainly produced some very evil empires,” Mr. Flurry wrote. “That ugly history has contributed to the evil view that many people today have of empire in general, especially among intellectuals and scholars in the West. However, the existence of these barbarizing empires doesn’t change the good that a civilizing empire can do. … Truly, the right kind of imperialism can accomplish great things!”

James Anthony Froude wrote in his book Oceana: “A man … who is more than himself, who is part of an institution, who has devoted himself to a cause—or is a citizen of an imperial power—expands to the scope and fullness of the larger organism; and the grander the organization, the larger and more important the unit that knows that he belongs to it. His thoughts are wider, his interests less selfish, his ambitions ampler and nobler. … A great nation makes great men; a small nation makes little men.”

We see this throughout history. Civilizations with great empires often produce great scientists, musicians and artists. When the empire disappears, so does all this culture. Why? There’s no simple, straightforward connection between extant of territory and brilliance of scientists.

There’s something about a vision of empire, of something greater than self, that fires the imagination and allows the human spirit to reach its full potential. You see this even in truly evil empires like the Soviet Union. The individual is at least working for something greater than himself.

This is true individually and nationally. If you want to reach your full potential, you need an outward vision—of something greater than yourself. If America and Britain want to become great again, they need some kind of vision as to why—what is the greatness for?

For Christians, the Bible provides that vision. Mr. Flurry wrote: “In fact, if you understand the gospel that Jesus Christ brought to this Earth—advance news from God the Father of the soon-coming Kingdom of God—it was at its heart an imperialistic message! The Kingdom of God could very accurately be called the God Family Empire!”

To succeed, we can’t be inward-focused. We can’t just try to increase our own understanding on self-improvement. That’s treading down the same route toward nhs worship. Instead, we need an outward vision, of sharing something greater than ourselves.

This is part of the reason why God has a Church. To succeed individually, we need a greater mission.

Herbert W. Armstrong said in a radio broadcast: “My friends, I have noticed that those who have their hearts in the work of God remain Christians. And they grow spiritually, and they do manage to overcome. And those who neglect it and just have their minds on themselves … try to do that alone without this collective, this cooperative work of God, I’ve never known anyone yet that could do that and succeed.”

If you want a greater, outward-focused vision for your life, watch our short video on “What Should You Do Now?”

Ultimately, God has a plan to offer a greater purpose and vision to everyone on Earth. The God Family Empire will never turn inward and fall. Instead, God promises that “of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).