A social reformer deeply committed to socialism and the presiding spirit behind the founding of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan was one of the most remarkable politicians in the history of the English-speaking world.
According to Professor Dai Smith, he was ‘that rare being, a practical politician with a philosophy for his actions beyond the minutiae of political activity, which was, in turn, only a means to achieve social and cultural ends.’
And in the words of Gordon Brown in 2008:
‘The astonishing fact is that Bevan’s vision has stood both the test of time and the test of change unimaginable in his day. At the centre of his vision was a National Health Service, and sixty years on his NHS – by surviving, growing and adapting to technological and demographic change – remains at the centre of the life of our nation as a uniquely British creation, and still a uniquely powerful engine of social justice.’
The young activist
Aneurin Bevan was born on 15 November 1897 in Tredegar, Monmouthshire, sixth of the ten children (only six of whom survived to adulthood) born to miner David Bevan and his wife Phoebe, daughter of a colliery blacksmith.
At the nearby elementary school young Nye – as he had been called from an early age – had to fight both an intense stammer and hatred of an unsympathetic headmaster, and before long was absorbing as much learning as he could at the local library: ‘His intellectual arrogance’, observed Labour historian Professor Brian Brivati, ‘was born of this self-education.’
Two thirds of the adult males in the town worked underground for the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company, and in November 1911, the month he turned fourteen years old, Bevan followed his father and elder brother down the pit. He started working in the Ty-tryst Colliery, all the while spending as much time as he could in the Tredegar Workmen’s Institute Library, devouring the works of – among many other writers – Rider Haggard, Jack London and H.G. Wells.
This was a troubled period in the history of the area, as Dai Smith has noted: ‘In these years before 1914 south Wales was in turmoil. Serious rioting had broken out in the densely populated central coalfield in 1910 as strikes led to social disturbance, and in 1911 Tredegar itself had seen attacks, with some anti-Jewish overtones, on shopkeepers.’
It was against such a background that by the age of nineteen Bevan had become active in politics, joining the Independent Labour Party and serving as chair of the Tredegar Lodge of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. Following a comb-out of the pits for conscripts, Bevan was taken before a tribunal on a charge of evading the call-up, but production of a medical certificate stating that he suffered from nystagmus, an eye disease common among miners, saw the case dismissed.
In 1919 he moved to London to spend two years studying economics, politics and history at the Central Labour College, where his reading widened to embrace Marx and Engels, and after returning to Wales there followed years during which, for the most part, he was unemployed. His father, with whom he regularly spent hours discussing his political aims and the means of achieving them, died in his arms of the miners’ disease pneumoconiosis in 1925.
In 1926 Bevan became a full-time union official, and on 15 April that year lock-out notices appeared at the pit-head of the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company, as they did at the headquarters of all collieries. The miners’ strike, called to protest at a proposed reduction in pay combined with increased working hours – hence their slogan ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’ – led to the General Strike of May 1926, during which Bevan was one of the driving forces leading the South Wales miners. It was now, with his appearance at conferences of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, that his reputation as an effective organizer and strategist as well as a firebrand activist and agitator found a national stage. The General Strike itself was short-lived, but the miners remained out for another six months.
Bevan was elected to the Tredegar District Council in 1922 – when Labour was in a minority – and to the Monmouthshire County Council in 1928, and his time as a councillor in many ways informed the later statesman: ‘Much of the generous, expansive vision of the later Labour minister in power,’ wrote Dai Smith, ‘is directly traceable to the powerless, frustrated Labour councillor of these years. Some of his frustration, early and late, was with what he consistently regarded as an insufficiently radical Labour party.’
The Member of Parliament
Aged thirty-one, Bevan entered Parliament at the general election on 30 May 1929 as Independent Labour Party member for Ebbw Vale, polling 20,088 votes against the Liberals’ 8,924 and the Unionists’ 4,287. The Daily Herald’s reporter noted: ‘There are about fifty miners’ Members in the new Parliament, but I do not think Mr Aneurin Bevan will be exactly lost in the crowd. He has a reputation for exceptional platform ability.’
The Herald man was right. Bevan’s incisive oratorical style made an almost immediate impact on the House of Commons, a forum tailor-made for his special cocktail of passion, delivery and forensic skill in unpicking an argument. As early as July 1929 he remarked of Neville Chamberlain: ‘The worst thing I can say about democracy is that it has tolerated the Right Honourable Gentleman for four and a half years.’ In addition to Chamberlain, Bevan regularly had in his sights Lloyd George, Winston Churchill (whom he once labelled ‘A man suffering from petrified adolescence’) and Ramsay Macdonald, Prime Minister in the Labour government voted in at the 1929 election.
The 1931 general election saw Labour defeated, but Bevan was returned unopposed as MP for Ebbw Vale, this time under the Labour Party banner.
In 1934 Bevan married Jennie Lee (1904-1988), who had become Independent Labour MP for North Lanark at the age of twenty-four in a 1929 by-election but had lost the seat in 1931. (She returned to the Commons in 1945 as MP for Cannock, a seat which she held until standing down in 1970, and was to leave a permanent monument in the form of the Open University, a project which she was entrusted to carry through during the Harold Wilson premiership of 1964-70 and which came to fruition in January 1971 when the first students started work on their foundation courses.)
The first decade of Nye Bevan’s time in the House of Commons was a turbulent one.
He proved a memorable parliamentary performer as he relentlessly championed the cause of the poor and unemployed, but he had major brushes both with the parliamentary authorities and with his own party. In April 1937 he was suspended from the house ‘for disregarding the authority of the chair’ during a crucial debate on the so-called ‘Special Areas’ of social deprivation; and in March 1939 he was expelled from the Labour Party for his constant opposition to the policy of non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Having given a formal undertaking to toe the line, he was reinstated in December the same year, by which time the Second World War had begun.
The outbreak of war saw Bevan ratcheting up his long established antagonism towards Neville Chamberlain, and he was instrumental in the process which ousted Chamberlain from 10 Downing Street in favour of Winston Churchill in 1940. While he pulled no punches when he disagreed with Churchill (who referred to Bevan during the war as ‘a squalid nuisance’), he kept his most virulent attacks for members of his own party – notably, in 1944, Ernest Bevin – when he considered they were betraying the socialist principles at the heart of the Labour movement.
From 1942 to 1945 he augmented his already prominent parliamentary profile through his editorship of the magazine Tribune, to which he had been contributing anonymously since before the war, and in 1944 Victor Gollancz published Bevan’s polemic Why Not Trust the Tories?
Into Cabinet – and founding the National Health Service
On 26 July 1945 the results of the general election held earlier that month were declared. Labour had returned to government with a landslide, and more predictably, Bevan had retained Ebbw Vale.
He had no great expectation of preferment at the hands of the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and the press had paid little attention to his chances of getting one of the major Cabinet portfolios. So it was a surprise to be summoned to see Attlee, who told him that he was offering a Cabinet position: ‘I understand that you have much experience of negotiation. I am offering you the post where you will deal with health, housing and the local authorities.’ At the age of forty-seven, Bevan was the youngest member of that fabled Cabinet.
He oversaw the building of over a million new houses before 1950, and in 1946 the government steered through the National Insurance Act, which created the infrastructure of what was to be the Welfare State. There would be mandatory contributions from employers and employees towards financing welfare provisions for old age pensions, unemployment, sickness, maternity and widows’ benefits.
Then in 1948 the National Health Service Act, which Bevan had seen through Parliament, became law. This allowed for people to receive, free at the point of use, medical diagnosis and treatment at home or in hospital, and in addition dental and ophthalmic treatment. Brian Brivati observes: ‘Bevan was now in charge of 2,688 hospitals in England and Wales. It was the decision to nationalise the hospitals that made the profound difference in the structural change brought about by the creation of the NHS. This decision was Bevan’s and its implementation was down to his skill, patience, and application as a minister. It is the most significant and lasting reform in the history of the Labour party and it was achieved by one man. The survival of the NHS is testament to Bevan’s ability and vision as a minister …’ The National Health Service became operational on 5 July 1948.
At the February 1950 general election Labour retained office, but with an overall majority reduced to a mere six seats, and in January 1951 Attlee moved Bevan from Health and Housing to become Minister for Labour. Barely two months later he resigned from Cabinet over the proposal to bring in charges for dental and ophthalmic services, ostensibly in order to raise income for the British commitment to join the USA in fighting the Korean War, but, in the view of some historians, less of a conflict of principles than a power struggle with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell.
Out of office
The general election of October 1951 saw the Conservatives return to power under Churchill, and to complete the Brian Brivati sentence quoted in the paragraph above: ‘The survival of the NHS is testament to Bevan’s ability and vision as a minister; that it was his only lasting concrete political achievement is equally a testament to the political failure of the five years after the fall of the Labour government – a fall he helped precipitate through resignation.’
The Conservatives were to remain in power until 1964, and Bevan was never again in the position to introduce legislation. Instead he spent much of the 1950s fighting – as he saw it – for the soul of the Labour Party. He was reseated at the top table of the party when he joined the Shadow Cabinet in 1952, the same year that he published his book In Place of Fear.
The cover of the original Heinemann edition proclaimed: ‘No one well informed in the contemporary political scene can afford to miss any of this book,’ and it is a measure of the volume’s staying power that such a statement retains its currency. In Place of Fear, which addresses a raft of issues including the role of Parliament, private versus collective spending, the provision of a free health service and the nature of democratic socialism, is Bevan’s political credo, but far from his last word. Jennie Lee, in her introduction to the 1976 reissue of the book, wrote that her husband ‘regarded In Place of Fear as a series of shorthand notes on themes he planned to write about at greater length later on.’ (In 2008 the Bevan Society marked the sixtieth anniversary of the foundation of the NHS by issuing a new edition of In Place of Fear, jointly sponsored by the unions Unite and Unison and featuring an introduction by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. Mr Brown’s introduction can be found on this website in the section ‘Bevan and the NHS’.)
Clement Attlee resigned as Labour leader in December 1955 – seven months after Labour had lost the general election – and, along with Hugh Gaitskell and Herbert Morrison, Bevan stood as a candidate to replace him. ‘I cannot possibly allow it to be thought that Gaitskell, who is a product of the public school …, is the natural representative of the industrial workers of Great Britain,’ declared Bevan, but too few of his parliamentary colleagues agreed with him, and the votes cast totalled:
With that result the so-called Bevanites, flag-bearers of the Labour left, were firmly put in their place.
Geoffrey Goodman characterised this period thus:
‘What rocked the Labour party in the five years between Attlee’s retirement and Bevan’s death was not a personal feud between Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell – though, to be sure, there was no chemistry between them either – so much as a profound conflict of ideas and concept of history. Certainly those five years saw the entire Labour movement travel through one of its most convulsive periods since the birth of the party at the turn of the century … The unique feature of Aneurin Bevan was his vision and his understanding of power, especially its limitations. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining his lack of ruthlessness and why, certainly towards the end of his life, he sometimes seemed to view the future power struggle almost with an air of detachment.’
The final years
Detached or not, in 1956 Bevan became Shadow Colonial Secretary and later the same year Shadow Foreign Secretary, in which role at the Brighton conference in October 1957 he famously rounded on his supporters who were in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
‘I knew this morning that I was going to make a speech that would offend and even hurt many of my friends,’ he declared. ‘I know that you are deeply convinced that the action you suggest is the most effective way of influencing international affairs. I am deeply convinced that you are wrong. It is therefore not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed. It is the most difficult of all problems facing mankind. But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications and do not run away from it you will send a Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber … You call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.’
Exactly what he meant by ‘naked into the conference chamber’ has been the subject of lively debate. ‘He was taken to mean “naked” as “disarmed”,’ wrote Dai Smith: ‘In fact he clearly meant “naked” as having no power to affect the dealings of others.’
Whatever he meant in precise terms, that famous speech led to a rapport with Gaitskell which led to Bevan’s unopposed election to the position of Deputy Leader in November 1959. But this was a post he was to hold on a sadly short tenure.
Bevan gave what was to prove his last speech – and one which his close friend and principal biographer Michael Foot considered ‘one of the three or four greatest he ever delivered’ – to the party conference at Blackpool in the autumn of 1959, and its final, extraordinarily long sentence can stand as a testimony to his politics as well as his remarkable oratorical powers:
‘I have enough faith in my fellow creatures in Great Britain to believe that when they have got over the delirium of the television, when they realize that their new homes that they have been put into are mortgaged up to the hilt, when they realize that the moneylender has been elevated to the highest position in the land, when they realize that the refinements for which they should look are not there, that it is a vulgar society of which no decent person could be proud, when they realize all those things, when the years go by and they see the challenge of modern society not being met by the Tories who can consolidate their political powers only on the basis of national mediocrity, who are unable to exploit the resources of their scientists because they are prevented by the greed of their capitalism from doing so, when they realize that the flower of our youth goes abroad today because they are not being given the opportunities of using their skill and their knowledge properly at home, when they realize that all the tides of history are flowing in our direction, that we are not beaten, that we represent the future: then, when we say it and mean it, then we shall lead our people to where they deserve to be led!’
In December 1959 an exploratory operation revealed the presence of cancer in his stomach. He returned to his Buckinghamshire home Asheridge Farm to recuperate, with every expectation to resuming a role in politics, but recovery was painfully slow. One newspaper reported the rumour that he was not planning a return, and had started writing his memoirs – a rumour to which Bevan gave very short shrift:
‘There is no basis in it at all. I strongly disapprove of people in active public life writing their memoirs. They do nothing but mischief. If they tell the truth it is hurtful, but they don’t tell the truth … I understand that Mr Macmillan [then Prime Minister] reads political biographies. I have never been able to achieve that level of credulity. My experience of public life has taught me to know that most of them are entirely unreadable. I would rather take my fiction straight. Newspapers, of course, I read avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.’
Bevan never returned to the political mainstream. His health progressively deteriorated, and he died in his sleep at Asheridge on 6 July 1960.
On the following morning a leader in The Times concluded:
‘His gifts were great, not least his power to win friendship among political opponents. His purpose was sincere; and he fought for what he believed in, often to the detriment of his own fortunes. He was colourful figure in Parliament and, surprising as it may be to those who knew only the bogy-man image, a gay one. Bitterness he could show, but it was transient. Even the victims of his jibes on the opposite benches could as often as not appreciate their artistry. The House of Commons will be a greyer place now that he will no longer be there.’
And Henry Fairlie in the Daily Mail, a newspaper as far as could be from a natural ally of Bevan, wrote:
‘The overwhelming impression is of a man of size, a man whose intellect was capacious, lively, and illuminating, a man whose emotions were strong and human, a man who believed greatly in his country and believed also, which is rare these days, in the power of ideas, a man who strove to retain the predominance of politics over economics or mass-psychology. For this, in the end, is what we owe to politicians like him. A democracy cannot survive healthily without the example of individual leaders who dare all as individuals and leave, long after their failures are forgotten, the imprint of a great human being.’
Bevan’s ashes were scattered on the hills above Tredegar, and it was here that the Bevan Memorial Stones were unveiled by Michael Foot in 1972. The largest stone represents Nye himself, while the three smaller represent his constituency towns of Ebbw Vale, Tredegar and Rhymney. Foot himself wrote of Bevan’s last resting place:
‘What he thought about the heart of things must be seen not in what he said and wrote but in his life and death. And it was for sure most fitting that his ashes should be scattered high on the mountain above the Duffryn valley underneath the mountain ash and where the bluebells grew; that was the wild place which, from his youth, he had loved most of all.’
Among the main sources for this biographical sketch are:
- MICHAEL FOOT, Aneurin Bevan, 1897-1945 (1962)
- MICHAEL FOOT, Aneurin Bevan, 1945-1960 (1973)
- DAI SMITH, Bevan, Aneurin (1897-1960), in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition, October 2009)
- BRIAN BRIVATI, ‘Aneurin Bevan, 1897-1960’ in Dictionary of Labour Biography, ed. Greg Rosen (2001)
- GEOFFREY GOODMAN, ‘The Soul of Socialism’, in The State of the Nation: The political legacy of Aneurin Bevan, ed. Geoffrey Goodman (1997)