Since the start of the British National Health Service, disputes between the government and the medical profession have become formalized battles with well-recognized rules. But between 1974 and 1976 the consensus underlying the conflict was challenged by the Labour Government's policy on private practice and pay beds. This paper examines the course of the conflict and analyzes the factors underlying the eruption of this issue. It draws attention to the role of the trade-unions in activating the Labour Party's latent ideological commitment on private practice. Although the issue appears to conform to a class-conflict model, this simple symmetry becomes blurred on closer analysis. In conclusion the paper argues that while socio-structural factors extrinsic to the health service explain the appearance of private practice on the political agenda, it is factors endogenous to the NHS which explain the outcome of the dispute. In turn, however, these endogenous factors have little to do with the fact that the NHS is delivering a commodity called “health.” Instead, what is important is that the NHS is a complex organization and, as such, depends on the co-operation of a variety of groups—ranging from the medical profession to laundry workers. The analysis, therefore, concludes that the power of the medical profession derives not from its elite status but from its position as an organized group in a complex industry.

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