|Occupations||Activist Politician Trade unionist|
|Birth||15 November 1897 (Tredegar, Blaenau Gwent County Borough, Wales, United Kingdom)|
|Death||6 July 1960 (London, Greater London, London, England)|
Aneurin Bevan, PC (; Welsh: [aˈnəɨ.rɪn]; 15 November 1897 – 6 July 1960), often known as Nye Bevan, was a Welsh Labour Party politician who was the Minister for Health in the post-war Attlee ministry from 1945-51. The son of a coal miner, Bevan was a lifelong champion of social justice, rights of working people and democratic socialism. He was a long-time Member of Parliament (MP), representing Ebbw Vale in South Wales for 31 years. He was one of the chief spokesmen for the Labour Party's left-wing, and of left-wing British thought generally. His most famous accomplishment came when, as Minister of Health, he spearheaded the establishment of the National Health Service, which was to provide medical care free at point-of-need to all Britons; regardless of wealth. He resigned when the Attlee government decided to transfer funds from the National Insurance Fund to pay for rearmament. The left-wing group within the party, known as "Bevanite", was named after him, but he did not control it.
Bevan remains one of Wales' most revered politicians. In 2004, over forty years after his death, he was voted first in a list of 100 Welsh Heroes, having been credited for his contribution to the founding of the welfare state.
Bevan was born in Tredegar, Monmouthshire, in the South Wales Valleys and on the northern edge of the South Wales coalfield, the son of coal miner David Bevan and Phoebe (née Prothero), a seamstress. Both Bevan's parents were Nonconformists; his father was a Baptist and his mother a Methodist. One of ten children, Bevan did poorly at school and his academic performance was so bad, that his headmaster made him repeat a year. At the age of thirteen, Bevan left school and began working in the local Ty-Trist Colliery. David Bevan had been a supporter of the Liberal Party in his youth, but was converted to socialism by the writings of Robert Blatchford in the Clarion and joined the Independent Labour Party.
Aneurin Bevan also joined the Tredegar branch of the South Wales Miners' Federation and became a trade union activist: he was head of his local Miners' Lodge at only nineteen years of age. Bevan became a well-known local orator and was seen by his employers, the Tredegar Iron Company, as a troublemaker. The manager of the colliery found an excuse to get him sacked. But, with the support of the Miners' Federation, the case was judged as one of victimisation and the company was forced to re-employ him.
In 1919, he won a scholarship to the Central Labour College in London, sponsored by the South Wales Miners' Federation. There, he spent two years studying economics, politics and history. He read Marxism at the college, developing his left-wing political outlook. Reciting long passages by William Morris, Bevan gradually began to overcome the stammer that he had had since he was a child.
Bevan remained at the College until 1921, attending at a time when a number of his contemporaries from South Wales, including Jim Griffiths, were also students at the College. However, some historians have questioned how influential the College was on his political development. He was not, apparently, one of the most diligent students, and found it difficult to follow an organised routine, including getting up early for breakfast.
Bevan was one of the founding members of the "Query Club" with his brother Billy and Walter Conway. The club started in 1920 or 1921 and they met in Tredegar. They would collect money each week for any member who needed it. The club intended to break the hold that the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company had on the town by becoming members of pivotal groups in the community.
Upon returning home in 1921, he found that the Tredegar Iron & Coal Company refused to re-employ him. He did not find work until 1924 and his employer, the Bedwellty Colliery, closed down only ten months later. Bevan then had to endure another year of unemployment. In February 1925, his father died of pneumoconiosis.
In 1926, he found work again, this time as a paid union official. His wage of £5 a week was paid by the members of the local Miners' Lodge. His new job arrived in time for him to head the local miners against the colliery companies in what would become the General Strike. When the strike started on 3 May 1926, Bevan soon emerged as one of the leaders of the South Wales miners. The miners remained on strike for six months. Bevan was largely responsible for the distribution of strike pay in Tredegar and the formation of the Council of Action, an organisation that helped to raise money and provided food for the miners.
He was a member of the Cottage Hospital Management Committee around 1928 and was chairman in 1929–30.
In 1928, Bevan won a seat on Monmouthshire County Council. With that success he was picked as the Labour Party candidate for Ebbw Vale (displacing the sitting MP), and easily held the seat at the 1929 General Election. In Parliament he soon became noticed as a harsh critic of those he felt opposed the working man. His targets included the Conservative Winston Churchill and the Liberal David Lloyd George, as well as Ramsay MacDonald and Margaret Bondfield from his own Labour party (he targeted the latter for her unwillingness to increase unemployment benefits). He had solid support from his constituency, being one of the few Labour MPs to be unopposed in the 1931 General Election and this support grew through the 1930s and the period of the Great Depression in the United Kingdom.
Soon after he entered parliament Bevan was briefly attracted to Oswald Mosley's arguments, becoming one of the 17 signatories of the Mosley Memorandum in the context of the MacDonald government's repeated economic crises, including the doubling of unemployment levels. However, in the words of his biographer John Campbell, "he breached with Mosley as soon as Mosley breached with the Labour Party". This is symptomatic of his lifelong commitment to the Labour Party, which was a result of his firm belief that only a party supported by the British Labour Movement could have a realistic chance of attaining political power for the working class.
He married fellow Socialist MP Jennie Lee in 1934. He was an early supporter of the socialists in Spain and visited that country in the 1930s. In 1936 he joined the board of the new socialist newspaper Tribune. His agitations for a united socialist front of all parties of the left (including the Communist Party of Great Britain) led to his brief expulsion from the Labour Party in March to November 1939 (along with Stafford Cripps and C. P. Trevelyan). But, he was readmitted in November 1939 after agreeing "to refrain from conducting or taking part in campaigns in opposition to the declared policy of the Party."
He strongly criticised the British government's rearmament plans in the face of the rise of Hitler's Germany, saying to the Labour conference in autumn 1937:
If the immediate international situation is used as an excuse to get us to drop our opposition to the rearmament programme of the Government, the next phase must be that we must desist from any industrial or political action that may disturb national unity in the face of Fascist aggression. Along that road is endless retreat, and at the end of it a voluntary totalitarian State with ourselves erecting the barbed wire around. You cannot collaborate, you cannot accept the logic of collaboration on a first class issue like rearmament, and at the same time evade the implications of collaboration all along the line when the occasion demands it.
However the Labour conference voted to drop its opposition to rearmament. When Winston Churchill said that the Labour Party should refrain from giving Hitler the impression that Britain was divided, Bevan rejected this as "sinister": "The fear of Hitler is to be used to frighten the workers of Britain into silence. In short Hitler is to rule Britain by proxy. If we accept the contention that the common enemy is Hitler and not the British capitalist class, then certainly Churchill is right. But it means abandonment of the class struggle and the subservience of the British workers to their own employers".
However, by March 1938 Bevan was writing in Tribune that Churchill's warnings about German intentions for Czechoslovakia were "a diapason of majestic harmony" compared to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's "thin, listless trickle". Bevan now called unsuccessfully for a Popular Front against fascism under the leadership of the Labour Party, including even anti-fascist Tories.On 31 March 1939 Bevan was expelled from the Labour Party along with a handful of others for sharing platforms with organisations not affiliated to Labour in his pursuit of a Popular Front.
When the government introduced voluntary national service in December 1938, Bevan argued that Labour should demand the nationalisation of the armaments industry, support Republican Spain and sign an Anglo-Soviet pact in return for its support. When Labour supported the government's scheme with no such conditions, Bevan denounced Labour for imploring the people on recruiting platforms to put themselves under the leadership of their opponents. When conscription was introduced six months later, Bevan joined the rest of the Labour Party in opposing it, calling it "the complete abandonment of any hope of a successful struggle against the weight of wealth in Great Britain". The government had no arguments to persuade young men to fight "except merely in another squalid attempt to defend themselves against the redistribution of international swag".
In August 1939 came the Nazi–Soviet Pact. In Parliament Bevan argued that this was the logical outcome of the government's foreign policy. However at this time of national crisis he voted for the first time with the government. He wanted the war to be not just a fight against fascism but a war for socialism.
He was a strong critic of the policies of Chamberlain, arguing that his old enemy Winston Churchill should be given power. During the war he was one of the main leaders of the left in the Commons, opposing the wartime Coalition government. Bevan opposed the heavy censorship imposed on radio and newspapers and wartime Defence Regulation 18B, which gave the Home Secretary the powers to intern citizens without trial. Bevan called for the nationalisation of the coal industry and advocated the opening of a Second Front in Western Europe to help the Soviet Union in its fight with Germany. Churchill responded by calling Bevan "a squalid nuisance".
Bevan was critical of the leadership of the British Army which he felt was class bound and inflexible. After Ritchie's retreat across Cyrenaica early in 1942 and his disastrous defeat by Rommel at Gazala, Bevan made one of his most memorable speeches in the Commons in support of a motion of censure against the Churchill government. In this he said, "The Prime Minister must realise that in this country there is a taunt on everyone's lips that if Rommel had been in the British Army he would still have been a sergeant ... There is a man in the British Army who flung 150,000 men across the Ebro in Spain, Michael Dunbar. He is at present a sergeant...He was Chief of Staff in Spain, he won the Battle of the Ebro, and he is a sergeant." In fact, Dunbar had been recommended for a commission, but rejected it himself.
Bevan believed that the Second World War would give Britain the opportunity to create "a new society". He often quoted an 1855 passage from Karl Marx: "The redeeming feature of war is that it puts a nation to the test. As exposure to the atmosphere reduces all mummies to instant dissolution, so war passes supreme judgment upon social systems that have outlived their vitality." At the beginning of the 1945 general election campaign Bevan told his audience that his goal was to eliminate any opposition to the Labour programme: "We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders. We enter this campaign at this general election, not merely to get rid of the Tory majority. We want the complete political extinction of the Tory Party, and twenty-five years of Labour Government."
The 1945 general election resulted in a landslide victory for the Labour Party, giving it a large enough majority to allow the implementation of the party's manifesto commitments and to introduce a programme of far-reaching social reforms that were collectively dubbed the "Welfare State" (see 1945 Labour Election Manifesto). These reforms were achieved in the face of great financial difficulty following the war. The new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, appointed Aneurin Bevan as Minister of Health, with a remit that also covered Housing. Thus, the responsibility for instituting a new and comprehensive National Health Service, as well as tackling the country's severe post-war housing shortage, fell to the youngest member of Attlee's Cabinet in his first ministerial position. The free National Health Service was paid for directly through public money. Government income was increased for the welfare state expenditure by a severe increase in marginal tax rates for wealthy business owners in particular, as part of what the Labour government largely saw as the redistribution of the wealth created by the working-class from the owners of large-scale industry to the workers.
The collective principle asserts that... no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.— Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear, p. 100
On the "appointed day", 5 July 1948, having overcome political opposition from both the Conservative Party and from within his own party, and after a dramatic showdown with the British Medical Association, which had threatened to derail the National Health Service scheme before it had even begun, as medical practitioners continued to withhold their support just months before the launch of the service, Bevan's National Health Service Act 1946 came into force. After eighteen months of ongoing dispute between the Ministry of Health and the BMA, Bevan finally managed to win over the support of the vast majority of the medical profession by offering a couple of minor concessions, but without compromising on the fundamental principles of his National Health Service proposals. Bevan later gave the famous quote that, to broker the deal, he had "stuffed their mouths with gold". Some 2,688 voluntary and municipal hospitals in England and Wales were nationalised and came under Bevan's supervisory control as Health Minister.
The National Health service and the Welfare State have come to be used as interchangeable terms, and in the mouths of some people as terms of reproach. Why this is so it is not difficult to understand, if you view everything from the angle of a strictly individualistic competitive society. A free health service is pure Socialism and as such it is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society.
When Bevan was made a minister in 1945, he envisioned a sector of public housing that would provide people with the choice to live in owner occupation or the private sector:
We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of citizen... to see the living tapestry of a mixed community.
Substantial bombing damage and the continued existence of pre-war slums in many parts of the country made the task of housing reform particularly challenging for Bevan. Indeed, these factors, exacerbated by post-war restrictions on the availability of building materials and skilled labour, collectively served to limit Bevan's achievements in this area. 1946 saw the completion of 55,600 new homes; this rose to 139,600 in 1947 and 227,600 in 1948. While this was not an insignificant achievement, Bevan's rate of house-building was seen as less of an achievement than that of his Conservative (indirect) successor, Harold Macmillan, who was able to complete some 300,000 a year as Minister for Housing in the 1950s. Macmillan was able to concentrate full-time on Housing, instead of being obliged, like Bevan, to combine his housing portfolio with that for Health (which for Bevan took the higher priority). However critics said that the cheaper mass-production housing built by Macmillan was exactly the poor standard of housing that Bevan was aiming to replace.
Bevan contended that his Welsh mining constituency did not send him to Parliament to "dress up" and declined to wear formal attire at Buckingham Palace functions.
Bevan said at a party rally in 1948: "no amount of cajolery can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party....They are lower than vermin." The comment inspired the creation of the Vermin Club by angry Conservatives; they attacked Bevan for years for the metaphor. Labour Party deputy leader Herbert Morrison complained that Bevan's attack had backfired, for his words "did much more to make the Tories work and vote... than Conservative Central Office could have done."
In 1951, with the retirement of Ernest Bevin, Bevan was a leading candidate for Foreign Secretary. Prime Minister Attlee rejected Bevan because he distrusted his personality. According to John Campbell, Attlee thought that:
- Bevan's impetuous temperament, undiplomatic tone and reputation as an extreme left-winger combined to make the Foreign Office seem the last place a prudent Prime Minister would think of putting him at any time. His "vermin" speech still resonated; imagination shuddered at a repetition of that on the international stage.
Bevan was appointed Minister of Labour (during which he helped to secure a deal for railwaymen which provided them with a big pay increase)) in 1951 but soon resigned in protest at Hugh Gaitskell's introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles—created to meet the financial demands imposed by the Korean War. Two other ministers, John Freeman and Harold Wilson resigned at the same time. See Bevan’s Resignation speech 23 April 1951. Later the same year, the Labour Party were defeated at the general election.
Bevan's last decade saw his political position weaken year by year as he failed to find a winning issue that would make use of his skills.
In 1952 Bevan published In Place of Fear, "the most widely read socialist book" of the period, according to a highly critical right-wing Labour MP Anthony Crosland. According to The Times Literary Supplement the book was a "dithyramb with meanderings into the many side-tracks of Mr Bevan's private and public experience." Bevan begins: "A young miner in a South Wales colliery, my concern was with the one practical question: Where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers?"
In March 1952, a poorly prepared Bevan came off the worse in an evening Commons debate on health with Conservative backbencher Iain Macleod: Macleod's performance led Churchill to appoint him Minister of Health some six weeks after his debate with Bevan.
Out of office, Bevan soon exacerbated the split within the Labour Party between the right and the left. For the next five years, Bevan was the leader of the left wing of the Labour Party, who became known as Bevanites. They criticised high defence expenditure (especially for nuclear weapons), called for better relations with the Soviet Union, and opposed the party leader, Attlee, on most issues. According to Richard Crossman Bevan hated "the in-fighting which you have to do in politics.... He wasn't cut out to be a leader, he was cut out to be a prophet." In 1954, Gaitskell defeated Bevan in a hard fought contest to be the Treasurer of the Labour Party. In March 1955, when Britain was preparing for tests of its first hydrogen bomb, Bevan led a revolt of 57 Labour MPs and abstained on a key vote. The Parliamentary Labour Party voted 141 to 113 to withdraw the whip from him, but it was restored within a month due to his popularity.
After the 1955 general election, Attlee retired as leader. Bevan contested the leadership against both Morrison and Labour right-winger Hugh Gaitskell, but it was Gaitskell who emerged victorious. Bevan's remark that "I know the right kind of political Leader for the Labour Party is a kind of desiccated calculating machine" was assumed to refer to Gaitskell, although Bevan denied it (commenting upon Gaitskell's record as Chancellor of the Exchequer as having "proved" this). However, Gaitskell was prepared to make Bevan Shadow Colonial Secretary, and then Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1956. Bevan was as critical of the Egyptian dictator Colonel Nasser's seizure of the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956 as he was of the subsequent Anglo-French military response. He compared Nasser with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. He was a vocal critic of the Conservative government's actions in the Suez Crisis, noticeably delivering high-profile speeches in Trafalgar Square on 4 November 1956 at a protest rally, and criticising the government's actions and arguments in Commons on 5 December 1956. At the Trafalgar rally, Bevan accused the government of a "policy of bankruptcy and despair". Bevan stated at the Trafalgar rally:
We are stronger than Egypt but there are other countries stronger than us. Are we prepared to accept for ourselves the logic we are applying to Egypt? If nations more powerful than ourselves accept the absence of principle, the anarchistic attitude of Eden and launch bombs on London, what answer have we got, what complaint have we got? If we are going to appeal to force, if force is to be the arbiter to which we appeal, it would at least make common sense to try to make sure beforehand that we have got it, even if you accept that abysmal logic, that decadent point of view.
We are in fact in the position today of having appealed to force in the case of a small nation, where if it is appealed to against us it will result in the destruction of Great Britain, not only as a nation, but as an island containing living men and women. Therefore I say to Anthony, I say to the British government, there is no count at all upon which they can be defended.
They have besmirched the name of Britain. They have made us ashamed of the things of which formerly we were proud. They have offended against every principle of decency and there is only one way in which they can even begin to restore their tarnished reputation and that is to get out! Get out! Get out!
That year, he was finally elected as party treasurer, beating George Brown.
Bevan dismayed many of his supporters when he suddenly reversed his opposition to nuclear weapons. Speaking at the 1957 Labour Party conference, he decried unilateral nuclear disarmament, saying "It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber". This statement is often misconstrued: Bevan argued that unilateralism would result in Britain's loss of allies, and one interpretation of his metaphor is that nakedness would come from the lack of allies, not the lack of weapons. According to the journalist Paul Routledge, Donald Bruce, a former MP and Parliamentary Private Secretary and adviser to Bevan, had told him that Bevan's shift on the disarmament issue was the result of discussions with the Soviet government where they advised him to push for British retention of nuclear weapons so they could possibly be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States.
In 1957, Bevan, Richard Crossman and the Labour Party's General Secretary Morgan Phillips sued The Spectator magazine for libel, after one of its writers described them as drinking heavily during an Italian Socialist Party conference. The article wrote that the three men:
...puzzled the Italians by their capacity to fill themselves like tanks with whisky and coffee... Although the Italians were never sure the British delegation were sober, they always attributed to them an immense political acumen.
The three won their case, and collected financial damages: later, however, Crossman was to acknowledge that they had perjured themselves to do so.
In 1959, Bevan was elected as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. In pain, he checked into a hospital at the end of 1959 to undergo surgery for an ulcer, but malignant stomach cancer was discovered instead. Bevan died in his sleep, at 4.10pm on 6 July 1960, at the age of 62 at his home Asheridge Farm, Chesham, Buckinghamshire. His remains were cremated at Gwent Crematorium in Croesyceiliog.
His last speech in the House of Commons, in the Debate of 3 November 1959 on the Queen's Speech, referred to the difficulties of persuading the electorate to support a policy which would make them less well-off in the short term but more prosperous in the long term.
- Why Not Trust The Tories?, 1944. Published under the pseudonym 'Celticus'. The title was intended ironically.
- In Place of Fear, 1952. (ISBN 9781163810118)
- Excerpts from Bevan's speeches are included in Greg Rosen's Old Labour to New, Methuen, 2005.
Bevan's key speeches in the legislative arena are to be found in:
- Peter J. Laugharne (ed.), Aneurin Bevan – A Parliamentary Odyssey: Volume I, Speeches at Westminster 1929–1944, Manutius Press, 1996.
- Peter J. Laugharne (ed.), Aneurin Bevan – A Parliamentary Odyssey: Volume II, Speeches at Westminster 1945–1960, Manutius Press, 2000.
- Peter J. Laugharne (ed.), Aneurin Bevan – A Parliamentary Odyssey: Volumes I and II, Speeches at Westminster 1929–1960, Manutius Press, 2004.