A VISIONARY PRAGMATIST: WHY BEVAN IS A LABOUR HERO
It is a great honour to give the tenth Aneurin Bevan Memorial Lecture – to pay tribute to one of the towering heroes of the Labour movement; to speak tonight alongside Geoffrey Goodman, Nye’s close friend and an authority on the man himself; to join a long and distinguished line of past lecturers including Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and my predecessor as Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson.
To understand why, fifty-one years after his death, we are still today celebrating the life and contribution of Aneurin Bevan to Labour and the trade union movement, you just have to look back at those past lectures and the tributes they paid.
But I am not going to start this lecture by quoting from the current generation of Labour greats who have paid tribute to Nye Bevan, but by quoting from one of the next younger generation of Bevanites.
Because I have been helped in researching this lecture by a young University of Bristol graduate named Ellie Gellard, the young woman whom Labour chose to introduce the party’s last manifesto in a new hospital in Birmingham.
And the name on Twitter which she goes by? ‘Bevanite Ellie.’
When I asked Ellie to put into words why Bevan was her hero, she told me: ‘Bevanism is the perfect political combination of principle and power.
Nye was the most vocal proponent of a democratic socialism which actually delivered for the people it sought to help. A figure who still today shows us that to change society for the better, we need to be true to our roots and our founding principles; but to do anything for the people we represent, we first and foremost need a Labour government.’
So let me start this lecture tonight with that good news: the legacy of Bevan is alive and well and being taken forward by the next generation of Labour activists.
And tonight, as Shadow Chancellor, I want to explain why Bevan is a hero of mine too.
Bevan the hero
Everyone has a special reason why Bevan is a hero.
For some, there is the fact that he overcame great hardship. Born in Tredegar – the son of a miner – forced to leave school at thirteen, self-taught, then winning a scholarship to the Central Labour College in London, sponsored by the Miners’ Federation: these were his first steps towards Westminster – to become an MP in 1929, make it to the Cabinet and then be Deputy Leader.
For others, there is the fact that – even before he was first elected to Parliament in 1929 – he had established a reputation as a brilliant speaker with that rare gift to inspire and lift an audience.
A great speaker – and such a colourful and controversial and sometimes frustratingly volatile figure – storming out of the Cabinet in 1951, expelled from the Labour party once, and almost a second time; passionately in love with his wife, Jennie Lee, a Labour heroine in her own right; a vocal critic of Winston Churchill, Ernie Bevin, the Daily Mirror, Tory ‘vermin’ – and pretty much everyone else at some point in his career.
Of course, for all of us it was his passion and compassion alongside his hard work, persistence and patience, that delivered the greatest achievement of Labour in power of the last century – the National Health Service; his lasting legacy, renewed and reaffirmed in the twenty-first century by the last Labour government, and now threatened as never before by the current Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition.
And then there is the fact that Bevan never made it to be Labour leader, in part (and aside from that famous volatility) because he put his beliefs before political expediency at key moments in his career – which is, for some romantics, enough of a reason to bestow hero status. But again, he is far from being alone in the history of our party.
For me, though, there is an extra special reason.
Because Bevan rose to be a senior figure in the Labour Party – and an impassioned platform speaker – despite struggling for all his life with a stammer.
And for Bevan, this struggle was the making of the man.As John Campbell writes in his biography of Bevan, this stammer ‘did not make him hate himself, or in the least degree diminish his self-confidence. Instead it drove him … to public speaking, first at Sunday school, later at lodge meetings, as a technique of mastering the demon by meeting it head-on … He used to practice declaiming large chunks of poetry on walks with his sister, he became adept at using the stammerers’ device of using an alternative word when he might stick on the obvious one’ – techniques which stammerers everywhere will most certainly recognise.
As Campbell concludes: ‘Whatever caused Bevan’s stammer, and whatever scars his stammer left, the determination and ultimate success with which he faced, harnessed and practically eradicated it was the first revelation, and the first exertion of an exceptional will.’
Which is why, for stammerers like me, Bevan will always be a special kind of hero.
Visionary and pragmatist
But my admiration for Bevan goes beyond the personal.
Because, as I argued at a special Guardian fringe meeting at our party conference in 2008 – organised to debate who is Labour’s greatest hero – Nye Bevan combined two important qualities both essential for success.
First, he was a visionary.
As Geoffrey Goodman has said: ‘I can think of no one in Labour’s pantheon who evoked and inspired the vision of a socialist society more eloquently and vibrantly than Aneurin Bevan.’
And in the words of Jennie Lee following Nye’s death in 1960: ‘He was not a cold blooded rationalist … He was no calculating machine. He was a great humanist whose religion lay in loving his fellow men and trying to serve them.’
Growing up in a mining community in South Wales, he saw hardship first hand. For Nye, Westminster was therefore a place to build a better future for the people he represented.
And no task was too big or too daunting. While Beveridge set out the five giants threatening our post-war society, Bevan sought to slay as many of them as possible.
And while slaying demons, Bevan also famously took no prisoners among his opponents – in others parties and also, at times, in his own – coruscating about the economic mistakes of MacDonald and Snowden in 1931, woundingly mocking of Winston Churchill in 1945, and – typical of the rebellious streak that held him back politically – storming out of the Cabinet over the costs of rearmament in 1951.
But second, and despite these outbursts, Bevan was also a pragmatist, who always knew that principles and values required political power to make a difference.
As a Cabinet minister, he compromised when necessary. As a political leader, he was a realist who was prepared to take the tough decisions when that was not the politically expedient thing to do.
As Labour historian Kenneth Morgan has written: ‘Bevan had a sense of the compromises and complications that the exercise of power might involve. The language of priorities, the relativism of his political philosophy, were essential ingredients of his outlook no less than the socialist bedrock.
Or in the words of Bevan himself, at the beginning of the 1945 general election campaign: ‘We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders.’
Take the NHS.
His vision of healthcare – free at the point of use, based on need and not ability to pay, one National Health Service – was born of his own practical experience of hardship in the valleys of south Wales. And it was radical, challenging and difficult to come to terms with – for foes but also for friends too anxious at seeing local municipal hospitals nationalised.
But Bevan the NHS architect was also a self-confessed pragmatist.
After a long, complicated process of negotiation with the vested interests of the health-care system, during which the very future of the NHS itself was cast into doubt, Bevan put aside purity, giving the BMA important concessions on earnings and pay beds – but without ever compromising the founding principles of the NHS.
As he famously said, to get the doctors on board, he ‘stuffed their mouths with gold.’
And on defence and international affairs, too, we see this same combination of vision and pragmatism.
Staunchly internationalist, appalled by the post-war direction of Soviet policy, an early advocate of NATO, famously critical of the Korean War and its implications for Britain – his disavowal of unilateralism at the 1957 Labour Conference again showed his pragmatism in action – famously suggesting the consequence of such a policy would be like sending the Foreign Secretary ‘naked into the conference chamber,’ all in the face of howls of protests from his Bevanite followers.
Indeed, it was disagreement over Bevan’s stance on disarmament which provoked the famously Bevanite Tribune newspaper to part company with Nye, who had been a board member at its launch in 1937.
And as monthly columnist of Tribune myself now for over eight years, I know that Nye Bevan would want me and all of us today to celebrate the news that, despite its financial troubles, an agreement has been reached with the proprietor and staff to allow the paper to continue as a co-operative – I hope securing the future of this august and historic part of the Labour movement.
Bevan and the economy
Bevan was a visionary and a pragmatist – on the NHS and defence, and on the economy too.
Over the past year, I have regularly said that Britain and the world must learn the lessons of the early 1930s – the mistaken austerity, the misplaced policies of the coalition National Government, the failure of international cooperation – if we are not to repeat the mistakes of those years.
And as he came into Parliament in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash, the second biggest financial crisis of the last hundred years, the trigger for a decade of stagnation and rising unemployment, Bevan’s speeches are highly instructive for today’s economic debate.
From the outset, Bevan argued, at a time of financial meltdown, that to do nothing, to fail to take a lead, to blindly accept the consensus, was a complete abdication of the responsibility of political leadership.
In his biography of Bevan, Michael Foot describes a conversation between MacDonald and Bevan: ‘The premier explained how his economic advisers had told him the crisis had passed its peak, how the unemployment figures would soon be turning the other way, how “recovery was just round the corner”, how if the party avoided internal embarrassments it might soon be able to face the country with renewed prospects of victory. Bevan left the interview in despair.’
And Bevan was deeply disparaging of the new National Government’s attempts to blame everything on the previous Labour government. Speaking in the House of Commons in December 1931, he declared: ‘It would be foolish for Hon. Members to say, as some have said, that this crisis is due to [two and a half years of] Socialist government. That is too frivolous … it ignores the fact that in countries which have not enjoyed the advantages of a Socialist government the crisis is even worse … If that were so, the defeat of that government and the mere coming into existence of a National Government would have resuscitated British industry, and it would be showing signs of immediate revival, whereas it is lying prostate as ever.’
Sounds familiar too?
But while angry in his opposition to the economic failings of the coalition, and desperate for an alternative vision, Bevan’s pragmatism and realism again shines through in that debate: ‘If you have a certain purpose in view, you seek for the right instruments to carry out that purpose, and the National Government, if it is to justify itself, must declare its purpose and plan … Is it not obvious that the PM is merely fobbing off the House of Commons with one tit-bit after another in the hope that time will come to his rescue? I would prefer to see in power a strong party government with a party programme, clearly thought-out and boldly executed, than this stalemate, the miserable conspiracy which today is called a national government … Let us face our problems in the spirit of realism.’
And what happened next?
The National Government did not listen to criticism – whether from Labour Bevan or the Liberal John Maynard Keynes. And what followed? The Great Depression of the 1930s, mass unemployment and – yes – the deficit got worse.
As I said to the Labour Conference this year and last: you either learn the lesson of history or you repeat the mistakes of history.
That is why I have argued that, facing a similarly dangerous economic crisis today, we need our political leaders to put ideology aside, demonstrate the same pragmatism and look at the facts.
And in setting out Labour’s alternative five-point plan for growth and jobs at this year’s conference, I drew again on the parallel with the 1930s, arguing that our country – the whole of the world – is facing a threat that most of us have only ever read about in the history books:
- a lost decade of economic stagnation;
- the aftermath of a worldwide financial and banking crash;
- families and businesses fearful about the future, cutting back on spending and investment;
- governments all around the world trying to cut spending at the same time;
- demand sucked out of the economy;
- stock markets tumbling, banks in trouble, economies stalling, unemployment rising – a vicious circle, as slow growth makes it harder to get deficits down;
- not a crisis of any one country or continent, but a spiralling global crisis, from which no economy can be safe, threatening the jobs, pensions and living standards of families here in Britain and across the world.
Not – as the Conservatives claim – simply a crisis of public debt which can be solved, country by country, by austerity, cuts and retrenchment, but truly a global growth crisis which is deepening and becoming more dangerous by the day.
The world must remember the lesson of the 1930s: that there is no credibility in piling austerity on austerity, tax rise on tax rise, cut upon cut, in the eventual hope that it will work when all the evidence is pointing the other way – a conclusion that, for all his (in my view misplaced) antipathy to John Maynard Keynes, I am sure that Bevan and Keynes would today agree with.
This Bevanite combination of vision and pragmatism must continue to guide us now – in opposition, and as we develop a credible and radical programme for government. And I choose the words ‘credible’ and ‘radical’ with care.
I believe it would be a profound mistake now to shy away from setting out our values and a radical vision for the future. In the face of a right-wing and ideological government, core Labour values of fairness and social justice are more important than ever.
But we must show that we do not hold values for their own sake or for show. Our beliefs and principles are our reference point, but we must also show what they mean in practice, how they are relevant to people’s lives in the twenty-first century and how they will guide our work in building a better Britain in the current economic and fiscal conditions.
And that means our opposition and our vision for government must be credible as well as radical and based on our values. Because we must make clear that part of that vision is rooted in a robust and credible economic analysis – to persuade people in their heads as well as their hearts to come back to Labour.
The fact is that we do have a radically different set of values and approaches from those of this Conservative-led government.
Where Margaret Thatcher promised to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ and Michael Howard smeared a publicly-funded NHS as ‘Stalinist’, in government we recast Labour’s mission to proclaim: ‘By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.’
As a matter of ideology, based on their values, whatever the Conservatives say about the responsibility we all have to act together, they will not do what is necessary to deliver social justice and opportunity for all. It is the same old Conservative ideology of small state and deep spending cuts, leaving the vulnerable relying on charity.
So instead of the private and voluntary sectors working alongside an empowering and enabling public sector, the involvement of charities and businesses is being boosted not to enhance public provision but to undermine it. Each new policy, fresh initiative or hasty Bill pushed through Parliament sees the state being withdrawn from support for the economy, the family and public services.
I take a different view of the importance of supporting the economy and sustaining public services and protecting those on lowest incomes as we ensure the deficit comes down in a steady and balanced way – a different view that is as important to our economic success as it is fundamental to our Labour and cooperative roots.
The Tories have a narrow view of the role of the state: that it stifles society and economic progress. We have a wider view of the role of state: a coming together of communities through democracy to support people, to intervene where markets fail, to promote economic prosperity and opportunities.
They have a narrow view of justice – you keep what you own and whatever you earn in a free-market free-for-all. Ours is a wider view of social justice that includes equal opportunities, and recognises that widely unequal societies are unfair and divisive.
Far from thinking that electoral success is based on the shedding or hiding of values, I believe we now need to champion those values and the importance of a fairer Britain – to show we are on people’s side after all. We need a much stronger, clearer vision of the fairer Britain we will fight for – very different from the unfairness and unemployment the right-wing coalition’s deep and dogma-driven cuts will cause.
The dividing line at the next election will remain between progressives who believe in rights and responsibilities – strong communities, supported by enabling government with a strengthened voluntary sector guaranteeing fairness and justice for all – and Conservatives who do not accept that there is a collective responsibility and are determined to pursue deep cuts in spending, leaving the vulnerable with less support and charities stepping in.
But it will not be enough simply to set out warm words and wishful thinking. It is not enough to wail that cuts are unfair, because if the Tories can persuade people they are unavoidable we won’t win the argument.
That is why the real lesson from New Labour’s political success was the importance of combining our values with economic rigour and tough fiscal disciplines. That is why it is vital that we show that deep Tory cuts are avoidable as well as unfair.
So my vision for Labour has at its heart an alternative economic plan to the devastating strategy of this Conservative-Liberal Democrat government; an alternative plan that is rooted in economic history and analysis as well as Labour values and principles.
Because just as Ramsay MacDonald and his chancellor Philip Snowden did after the biggest financial crisis of the last century, David Cameron and George Osborne claim that deep spending cuts are unavoidable to slash the deficit and satisfy the markets.
It is the same strategy then and now to ease pressure on sterling and hope that downward pressure on wages would boost competitiveness and trigger a private-sector-led economic recovery.
But then as now the promised private sector recovery has failed to materialise as companies themselves retrench, unemployment is rising, and growth is stagnant.
The government says deep cuts are unavoidable – and when I say they are wrong – that the spending cuts and tax rises go too far and too fast and are a political choice, not economic necessity – Cameron echoes MacDonald and calls his critics ‘deficit deniers’.
They enthuse about a private-sector-led economic recovery; they say that the Governor of the Bank of England and the financial markets demand rapid deficit reduction. But that argument was always nonsense – as the stagnation of our economy for the last twelve months has shown.
First, there is no precedent to believe that, with slowing growth in our main trading partners and companies deleveraging, public sector retrenchment will stimulate private sector growth. The 1930s and 1980s proved the opposite. And we have seen in recent months that private sector jobs have failed to fill the gap left by cuts to public sector jobs.
This argument is as specious as the government’s claim that the reason why we have a large deficit is because of Labour’s spending prolificacy. The truth is that Britain started the crisis with lower national debt than America, France, Germany and Japan. It was a global crisis triggered by the irresponsibility of bankers, not public servants: it was not too many teachers, nurses and police officers in Britain which caused the Lehman Brothers investment bank to collapse in New York.
Second, while I respect Mervyn King, the 1931 Bank of England governor Montagu Norman also strongly advocated the ‘Treasury view’ that rapid cuts were necessary. Sometimes even bank governors get it wrong, especially when the political and media wind is blowing so strongly in one direction.
And third, the idea that the UK faces a financial crisis if we do not cut the deficit faster is a fiction. Outside the Eurozone and with low long-term interest rates, Britain faces no difficulty servicing its debts, and the main worry in financial markets is now about the absence of growth.
What matters to market credibility is not how tough politicians talk on deficit reduction, but whether their plans are deliverable. Savage cuts which hit the economy or are politically undeliverable won’t in the end achieve sustainable deficit reduction or build market confidence. In fact, the government is already set to borrow £46 billion more than they planned.
That is why I believe we need a slower, steadier, fairer deficit reduction plan, which does not put jobs, growth or front-line services at risk, is more likely to succeed, and has market credibility too.
So yes, there is an alternative. And following in the tradition of Bevan and Keynes, it is Labour’s responsibility to set it out: a clear five-point plan for growth and jobs, a more sensible timetable for deficit reduction, and a robust explanation of why that will better support our economy and public finances.
We do need to set out distinctive values, ideas and vision for the future. But the risk is that we talk only of our values and visions and fail to focus on the economic realities we face and persuading people.
That is why we must set out spending discipline and tough new fiscal rules alongside action now for growth and jobs to get the deficit down.
In the 1990s the challenge for Labour was to win people’s heads as well as their hearts. After thirteen years in government we lost too many hearts. We have to win them back. But in the process we also have to win their heads too. We need a credible and radical programme for government.
That’s how – drawing upon a Bevanite combination of vision and pragmatism – I believe we combine our values and the pursuit of electoral success so we can put them into practice too.
So it is clear why Bevan is a hero of mine: stammering, the NHS, defence, the economy, and above all, a pragmatic Labour visionary.
But let me return to the argument I made at the Guardian fringe meeting of three years ago, at which that paper’s political columnist Martin Kettle asked me to make the case for Nye Bevan as the greatest Labour hero of the past one hundred years:
That he is a hero of our movement is beyond doubt, right up there with Keir Hardie, Clem Attlee, Barbara Castle, Tony Crosland, Neil Kinnock and – yes – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown too.
But the greatest hero?
What is extra-special about Nye Bevan, I argued, is that his passion, his values and his example inspired a succeeding generation of followers, the Bevanites, who were loyal to their hero and determined to nurture his legacy in a way that no other Labour figure has achieved.
Keir Hardie and Clem Attlee were great leaders who paved the way, but who were the Hardie-ites, the Attlee-ites?
Barbara Castle? Well she was a Bevanite, as were Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.
And, unlike ‘Gaitskellite’, ‘Bevanite’ remains a meaningful term – still today invoking a Labour vision of a better and more equal society.
That is why, I argued, Nye Bevan deserves the title of Labour’s greatest hero.
And what greater tribute to the great man than that he is still a hero today – his name evoked by a new generation to describe their approach to politics.
Ladies and gentlemen – just ask Bevanite Ellie …