‘Why we fight’


Perhaps to demonstrate that politicians do have a use after all, one of Alan Johnson’s final decisions before being ghosted from the Department of Health to the Home Office was to instruct Islington Primary Health Trust to ‘reappraise’ its decision to sell off to developers Berthold Lubetkin’s Grade 1 listed Finsbury Health Centre.

There’s quite a lot online about the Health Centre, which was opened in 1938. Lubetkin was a Russian emigre who became one of the leading Modernist architects in the UK. His views on the function of architecture were radical; nothing was too good for ordinary people. Architecture should be an engine of social progress. This chimed with Finsbury Council, one of the most left-wing in the country, grappling with some of the greatest poverty and worst public health conditions.

But what’s interesting about the building was how quickly it became iconic – adopted by the Ministry of Information as a symbol of what Britain was fighting for in the second world war, as seen in the propaganda poster by Abram Games at the top of the post. Close study suggests that it was designed to make visual the Beveridge Report, with its attack on the ‘five giants’ of illness, ignorance, disease, squalor, and want, seen in the shadows behind the new health centre.  (The more traditional approach to visualising Britain – and certainly the one that would dominate now – is shown below.)


I was thinking about this partly because I was reading the biography of the film-maker Emeric Pressburger, whose war-time films meant endless conflict with the Ministry of Information. In early 1940, a memo was issued on the subject of the areas which were appropriate for propaganda, and there were three of these:

  1. What Britain is fighting for
  2. How Britain fights
  3. The need for sacrifices if the fight is to be won.

Without going into detail, the first heading was about ‘British Life and Character’, and ‘British Ideas and Institutions’. I’m only guessing. of course, that there was a similar note written to inform the wartime art and poster effort, although it seems likely. But with hindsight, it seems extraordinary that a radical public building by a pioneer of the modernist moverment in one of the poorest parts of the counctry should, in effect, be enshrined as an idea or institution worth fighting for within five years of opening its doors. Churchill hated the poster (not the first time he’d disliked Information Ministry propaganda) and it was printed but never displayed; but the fact that it was commissioned at all is a clue to post-war politics. Finsbury’s approach to health is seen now as a model for the national health service; Lubetkin, Games, and the Ministry of Information commissioner of the poster perhaps understood better than Churchill what they were fighting for.


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