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Bevan, Aneurin [Nye]locked

(1897–1960)
  • Dai Smith

Aneurin Bevan (1897–1960)

by Sir Cecil Beaton, 1940

© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Bevan, Aneurin [Nye] (1897–1960), politician, was born on 15 November 1897 at 32 Charles Street, Tredegar, in the Sirhowy valley, Monmouthshire, the sixth of the ten children of David Bevan, collier, and his wife, Phoebe, daughter of John Prothero, colliery blacksmith. Two of Bevan's five brothers did not survive infancy; a third, the family's first-born, had died at the age of eight, and a much loved younger sister died in her teenage years. These were some of the hard and established facts of the industrial revolution, by which, Bevan later wrote, 'we were surrounded'. What also circumscribed the family was the economic and social power of the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company, for which all of the male members of his family (and two-thirds of the adult males of Tredegar, population 25,000 and a company town in every sense as he grew up there) worked underground. The key to Bevan's life and his political direction lies within this communal and collective framework rather than in any individual biographical differences between himself and the people of whom he sought to be truly representative.

Bevan in south Wales: the early years

Bevan's generation, in particular, was formed both by the dynamic economic expansion of the south Wales coalfield, with all its attendant social possibilities, before the First World War and by the post-war decline of the steam coal export trade, which thwarted that potential for cultural change which some had sensed all around them. When David Bevan died from pneumoconiosis in his favourite son's arms in 1925, he was asking for the Daily Herald and news of John Wheatley, socialist minister responsible for housing in the first Labour government of 1923–4, but his own youthful world had been one of liberal politics, Baptist religion, and that Welsh-language culture which had permeated the respectable working class of late Victorian times. At the end he was following his son, whose secular socialism broke with all those things. At home the boy, quickly and everlastingly known as Nye, was in thrall, as were all the family, to his formidable and competent mother—homemaker and dressmaker supreme—whom, in his sturdy frame and practical manner, he resembled. At school (Sirhowy elementary), an intense stammer and an unsympathetic schoolmaster ensured that his latent intellectual gifts were stifled and, barely fourteen, he left in 1911 to join his father and brother in the local colliery.

Bevan found himself on a fast learning curve. 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. Bevan began to listen to those around him who were trying to make sense of the connecting elements in the surrounding chaos. His early literary taste for romance and adventure led him to the Tredegar Workmen's Institute and the discovery of an author such as Jack London who combined the romantic with the political; but his formative education was undertaken by a local Independent Labour Party (ILP) enthusiast Walter Conway, who also worked with him to eradicate his stammer in public speaking, and by Sydney Jones, a slightly older man based further down the Sirhowy valley at Blackwood, who took weekly social science classes, based on the Central Labour College's teaching, which Bevan assiduously attended. The philosophy he imbibed was an eclectic mix of Marxist economic theory, German monism via Dietzgen, workers' control as 'syndicalism' (or 'industrial unionism' in its Welsh guise), and a materialist conception of history. In the circumstances of his one-industry time and place, it served as both illumination and a practical way forward, provided there was also a mass union membership educated for direct action. By 1916 Bevan, a skilled collier, had become chairman of his local lodge which, in turn, was combining with other lodges in wartime protests against inadequate provision of affordable housing and food, in which he proved prominent. A comb-out of the pits for conscripts saw Bevan ordered before a tribunal for refusing his military call-up: he produced a medical certificate for nystagmus (an eye disease suffered by miners) and the case was dismissed.

Bevan was by now active in anti-war campaigns across south Wales, and already a delegate to the conferences of the South Wales Miners' Federation (SWMF) in Cardiff. That body, along with the National Union of Railwaymen, financed the Central Labour College in London, to which selected men were dispatched. His own attendance there, from 1919 to 1921, was scarcely that of a model student, but neither the rigid orthodoxies of the lecturing nor the constraints on his time (better spent, he felt, on the sights, sounds, and experiences of the capital than on the drummed-in pages of Kapital) were in line with the impatient, confident personality which his experiences had formed. He could not wait to return to Tredegar and effective action.

Bevan reflected in his quasi-autobiographical credo, In Place of Fear (1952), that in the post-war crisis the industrial workers of Britain, and especially the miners whose national strike of 1919 was averted by a royal commission whose majority report subsequently advocated nationalization of the mines, had been duped and defeated by the government at the behest of a capitalist class. This defeat was complete before 1921 had ended. For Bevan the general strike and miners' lock-out of 1926 was a tragic replay of a fight already lost. In his own life at the time he had plenty of opportunity to reflect on how late, and so how ineffective, direct action had been. In effect, his own leadership attributes were now used to agitate on behalf of the unemployed in whose ranks he found himself: there was some intermittent work as a labourer for the council; briefly, until one and then another pit closed, as a checkweighman on the men's behalf; and, from early 1926, paid work as a disputes agent for the local miners. He learned, with some bitterness, of the loss of benefit attendant on a sister's meagre income entering the household and saw, with even more bitterness, the social haemorrhaging of coalfield communities through migration. His own reputation, as an effective organizer and distinctive platform speaker, grew, especially during the long dispute of 1926 when he attended and spoke as a delegate at national conferences of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. Towards the end of that desperate year, with appalling conditions of life in south Wales and the imminent destruction of the SWMF, the collective organization to which he had devoted most of his time and hopes, he was one of those who urged a negotiated return to work. It was a stance which marked him out from his close ally and contemporary Arthur Horner, the communist leader from the Rhondda who became president of the SWMF in 1936 and general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1946. It has led some to the view that it was from this point on that Bevan put direct-action tactics behind his youthful self in favour of electoral politics. The reality is rather that he spurned pre-ordained defeat in 1926 while never rejecting a twin-track route to the empowerment of the working class.

Thus, as early as 1922 Bevan had stood for and won a seat as a Labour councillor on the 'independent'-run Tredegar urban district council. Although there was not a Labour majority on this council until 1928, the year in which he was returned as a county councillor from the town for Monmouthshire, his activities through the 1920s were vigorously directed to raising political consciousness, through all manner of non-political ancillary activities, in order to root and sustain the Labour Party in Tredegar's locality. His approach to this—ranging from arguments for superior municipal housing and open public spaces, parks, and leisure activities to defence of the miners' own pre-war Tredegar Medical Aid Society and denunciation of the bureaucratic grip of the poor-law commissioners ('a new race of robbers') who replaced the local, and too sympathetic, board of guardians—was wide-ranging and imaginative. Much of the generous, expansive vision of the later Labour minister in power 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. However, at no time, despite his close personal and even philosophical links, did he consider joining the Communist Party which, though strongly supported in parts of south Wales, was not a force on his own patch and which, besides, he considered a national political cul-de-sac. Other traditional openings for young aspirants to political influence were increasingly closed as the SWMF shed members and official positions in the deepening economic crisis that turned south Wales into a region of long-term, mass unemployment until the Second World War. In 1929 the opportunity came, not entirely fortuitously, to stand for parliament in the Ebbw Vale constituency, which also embraced Rhymni and Tredegar.

Evan Davies, a miner's agent of the old school, had held the seat since 1920. His increasingly dilatory behaviour, allied to a political stance so moderate as to be deferential, infuriated the young turks of Tredegar, marshalled as they had been by Bevan into a debating society-cum-cell, the Query Club. When one of the quizzers, the diminutive and mischievous Archie Lush, became Davies's agent in 1927, the criticism mounted from within. Lush persuaded the SWMF's executive council to take the unusual step of balloting the local miners' lodges in the district as to which candidate should be preferred in the forthcoming election. Bevan topped the list on all three ballots held as others fell out and, as the miners' nominee, was adopted by the divisional Labour Party. The general election was called a month later and he entered parliament, aged thirty-two, in May 1929 as the member for Ebbw Vale.

The people's tribune as MP

From this point Archie Lush, Bevan's closest friend, acted as his eyes and ears in the constituency. Bevan was freed to make his impact on the wider stage. As an untried back-bencher in Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour government (1929–31) that would not be easy, but Bevan had physical presence—almost 6 feet, with open blue-grey eyes and a shock of black hair—to match a debater's keen wit and a passionate anger scarcely banked down by the proprieties of the House of Commons, whose master, within a decade, he would become. It proved to be the natural forum for his forensic style and the scathing logic he deployed against opponents. Here, more than anywhere, Bevan's crafted performances gave the lie to accusations of demagoguery. He was, on the contrary, noticed immediately by the hallmark of his speeches: thoughtfulness brought to the point of originality by sincerity. He was not only noticed but taken up by talent spotters such as Lord Beaverbrook, whose entourage was as wide as it was unlikely, and by intellectuals in the party such as John Strachey, who were as uneasy as he was with MacDonald's consensual drift. His reputation, in the house, was made by full-fronted attacks on figures as major as his fellow countryman Lloyd George and, throughout the decade, by reminding the Commons of the unresolved condition of the unemployed in the so-called ‘special areas’. At Westminster he cut a rather too raffish figure in the eyes of staider MPs. He clearly delighted in mixing with writers, actors, and journalists amid a metropolitan whirl. Bevan's social tastes and, soon, relatively high living, raised eyebrows and elicited quips (a 'Bollinger Bolshevik', a 'ritzy Robespierre', opined a not unfriendly Brendan Bracken, Churchill's close adviser). Yet his own self-assurance, allied to an unshakeable set of political principles and firm practice, left him as immune to these barbs as to the later, angrier comparisons with Hitler (from Gaitskell) and references to the 'Tito from Tonypandy', Churchill's wartime 'squalid nuisance'. Indeed, it was Bevan's very ability to combine social self-confidence with an abiding contempt for existing social structures which made him so dangerous an opponent in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate: he oozed triumphalism, and he was, whenever the circumstance threatened to translate it into reality, hated more deeply for this by his political opponents than any other figure in mainstream politics in the twentieth century.

For Bevan, relations with his own party were often equally fraught. As MacDonald's Labour government floundered by 1931 into a shape-shifting National Government (the politics of coalition leads to 'the knacker's yard', thought Bevan) he more than flirted with the dynamism of Oswald Mosley's New Party and, by 1933, though Mosley's extra-parliamentary route to the far right had been quickly detected and rejected, Bevan was, in a ravaged south Wales, advocating workers' freedom groups as a kind of militia. If in volatile times this activity was not divorced from a wider context of monster demonstrations, stay-down strikes, and direct clashes with a confrontational police force, it was none the less typical of his impatience with the form of intra-parliamentary politics. As the international crisis deepened Bevan, along with other Labour Party left-wingers, urged an interventionist stance, as in the Spanish Civil War which he visited at first hand in 1938, on both his own party leadership and Neville Chamberlain's government. He was prominent in 1937 in the unity campaign, pulling together allies to the left, including even the Communist Party, as the Socialist League under the leadership of Sir Stafford Cripps ventured to break the mould of party stultification. That ended, with the league's dissolution, when Labour's national executive committee (NEC) forbade platform-sharing with communists; then, in early 1939, as Europe lurched towards war, the groundswell for a popular front proved irresistible to the grass roots but not to the party leadership. Cripps, from within the NEC but intransigent on these issues, was formally expelled from the party along with others, including one of his chief acolytes, Nye Bevan.

In all of this Bevan, whose membership was restored after a formal undertaking by him in December 1939, was a reluctant, if distinctly unruly, rebel. His contention was twofold: that the Labour Party required the invigoration of extra-parliamentary agitation to give it the purpose and courage it so singularly lacked as an opposition, but that, by historical circumstance, it was the chosen instrument of the British working class and, as such, alone capable of delivering any lasting change in the distribution of power. He resolutely, in the 1930s as in the 1950s, defended the right to argue, on an organized basis, for constitutional change within the party, but never willingly left it. Hence, the scorn with which he treated the decision of Jennie Lee to cling to the ILP when that founding section of the Labour Party defected, in righteous purity, in 1932.

His life with Jennie Lee

Jennie Lee (1904–1988) had entered the House of Commons in the same year as Bevan, but through an earlier by-election, in 1929, as the ILP member for North Lanark. Her gender, handsome looks, and fiery oratory made her a much better known figure in the public eye than Bevan was in those early years. They became friends rather than close confidants, and with more wariness on her part than his. Besides, she was deeply in love and soon caught up in a passionate affair with a man twenty years her senior, the influential Labour MP Frank Wise, whose marriage just about accommodated their open relationship. When Frank Wise died suddenly in 1933, Jennie and Nye pulled together politically as well as emotionally, quickly grew closer, and began to live together. Both railed against social conventions and both, but especially Jennie, insisted on maintaining freedom, sexual and professional, outside any partnership. None the less, and with this agreed, they married in 1934. Jennie Lee did indeed pursue a full-hearted career: as a journalist after the loss of her seat in 1931, and again, after the Second World War, as Labour MP for Cannock from 1945 to 1970. There is no doubt, though, that in the 1940s she increasingly recognized the scale of Bevan's capabilities and that she worked, with a growing number of disciples, notably the young journalist and MP in the 1945 intake Michael Foot, to help realize through his genius the ambitions they all shared. Bevan, initially somewhat reluctantly, accepted that there would be no children born to the marriage. Theirs was, in all other respects, and in the various lively homes they made and shared in London and in the country, a love affair that deepened and a significant alliance.

The wartime critic

For his conduct as an irrepressible and much maligned critic during the war, Bevan needed all the support he could find. It was now that his mark was truly made as a politician of national stature. It was Bevan's distinction to use the freedom of the back benches to uphold parliament's right to question the executive even when a wartime coalition cabinet enjoyed widespread popular support as a government of national unity. This, he argued, was the essence of democracy. The case was made weekly in Tribune, the paper to which he had contributed anonymously since 1937 and which, from 1941 to 1945, he edited. George Orwell, literary editor and columnist from 1943, affirmed the 'progressive and humane' stance of the paper as an unusual and principled one. Bevan personalized the principle by now pitting himself against both the rotundities of Churchill's rhetoric and the allegedly expert direction of the war. On the latter he urged greater energy in prosecuting any advantage that occurred and was an early advocate of a second front as soon as the Soviet Union entered the war in June 1941. He depicted Churchill as an orator trapped by the traditions and the interests of the past, incapable of envisaging or desiring a post-war settlement not carved up by the great powers. He put himself forward as a tribune representative of 'the hope and aspirations for the future' on both domestic and international fronts. Nor did he confine his critique to overt Conservatism; in 1944 when regulation 1AA, to be installed by Ernest Bevin as wartime minister of labour, sharply restricted the individual's right to strike, he launched a fierce polemic against both the impracticality of the measure and its sinister precedent for a society in which working-class liberties had so largely derived from such freedom of action.

The anger directed against Bevan came, in large measure, from those in his own party whose trade union affiliation was affronted by his defence of the 'robust, dignified' rank and file against the 'cynical, irresponsible trade union official'. His libertarian stance was never clearer—'I do not represent the big bosses at the top', he told the Commons on 28 April 1944, 'I represent the people at the bottom, the individual men and women … this Regulation is the enfranchisement of the corporate Society and the disfranchisement of the individual' (Hansard 5C, vol. 399, col. 1072). Bevan led the parliamentary revolt, substantial when dissidents and abstainers from within the Labour Party were added together, and again faced up to calls for his expulsion. Instead, with gritted teeth the NEC required a written promise to toe the party line in future. He gave it, and by the end of that climactic year he had for the first time been elected by the constituency section of the party to the NEC, Labour's governing body. When he had been elected in 1928 to the Monmouthshire county council the Western Mail had labelled him in its report as a 'Socialist critic of Socialists' (Foot, 1.83). The sentiment was just as applicable in 1944; in the sixteen years of travail and achievement which now lay before him Bevan unrelentingly offered up the constructive critique he felt his party needed and the British working class demanded.

Bevan threw himself into the general election of July 1945 with an optimistic conviction of victory few senior members of his party shared. He was vindicated by the landslide return of Clement Attlee's administration and by the offer, surprising to many, of a cabinet post as minister of health and housing. He joined the cabinet as not only its youngest member but also its most intriguing appointment.

Government minister to resignation

Bevan's tenure of this office—over five years as it turned out—would not be considered a failure even if his record was judged on housing alone. At a time of considerable shortage of building materials and burdened by unwieldy layers of administrative and procedural responsibilities, Bevan none the less oversaw the building of over 1 million permanent homes down to 1950. Crucially, they were homes built to high standards—inside lavatories, three bedrooms, gardens—which neither his successor nor the Conservative government, which built more and more quickly, chose to maintain. Yet for Bevan, 'a rabbit-warren accommodation leads to a rabbit-warren mind' (Foot, 1.53), as he said in 1925. It was axiomatic that the first Labour government with a public-housing policy to inaugurate since John Wheatley in the 1920s should fulfil it with regard 'to the artistic and aesthetic aspect' of workers' housing, which Bevan had stressed as a young councillor in the even more benighted 1920s.

Relative success as a housing minister was, of course, eclipsed by the central achievement of Bevan's career—an achievement on which his reputation, then and now, squarely rests—the creation of the National Health Service (NHS). As minister of health he inherited a ramshackle structure of health care—notably a mixed provision of voluntary and municipal or public hospitals administered by literally hundreds of separate local authorities—and a set of vague proposals emanating from his wartime predecessor, Henry Willink, which failed to address the role of the general practitioner in any unified service. Bevan gripped the problem from the outset. By a combination of intellectual audacity and cautious practice he drove his proposals through cabinet by the end of the year, published his National Health Service Bill with accompanying white paper in March 1946, and saw the NHS legislation become law on 6 November 1946. It would be another two years before the NHS was fully instituted, on 5 July 1948, and that intervening period revealed just how radical the minister was being and just how virulent was the opposition he would arouse.

In essence Bevan proposed to nationalize the entire hospital service under a system of regional hospital boards and to abolish the sale and purchase of medical practices, with GPs becoming, in part, salaried employees of the state. The administrative structure devised to implement it was certainly complex, since various local government and professional interests needed to be assuaged by the plan, but the concept of a national service underlined Bevan's determination to ensure universal access to first-class care, free at the point of delivery, not a minimum subsistence level of care unevenly distributed. Costs would be met by general taxation. 'Bevan's model', wrote Charles Webster, the official historian of the NHS, 'was … the private wing of the voluntary hospital rather than the poor law infirmary' (The National Health Service: a Political History, 1998, 24).

The major stumbling block to full implementation of the plan was the medical profession itself. The British Medical Association fought a bitter rearguard action and, as late as February 1948, a plebiscite of their members showed an 8 to 1 majority in favour of boycotting the entire scheme. Bevan railed, privately and publicly, against their short-sighted self-interest. He also moved to disrupt any overall medical coalition by a sequence of concessions and compromises. Consultants, influential in their potential role as peacemakers within the profession, were allowed, on full- or part-time contracts, to engage in private practice and to use the old voluntary pay-bed system within the new NHS, so non-co-operation from that quarter was averted. Bevan's much quoted acerbic comment 'I stuffed their mouths with gold' was, however, made in 1955 or 1956 (C. Webster, ed., Aneurin Bevan on the National Health Service, 1991, 218–22). In so far as GPs were concerned Bevan refused to budge over ending the sale and purchase of practices but, along with a number of minor compromises over conditions of service, he yielded over the small element of salaried remuneration with the further promise of legislating to rule out the future introduction of a salaried service. Arguably these concessions, effectively ending any significant opposition to the proposals, killed off any hopes of a fully socialist NHS (health centres staffed by salaried doctors and run by locally elected authorities) as proposed by the Socialist Medical Association. Unarguably, the NHS was warmly welcomed by the British public—Bevan could announce on its launch day that almost 94 per cent of the population had already enrolled—for whom it rapidly became a touchstone of national identity. Bevan had demonstrated creative political skills as a minister and accomplished practice as an administrator. His star within the cabinet was clearly an ascendant one.

Bevan chose this very moment to make the most notorious, possibly most damaging, speech of his career. At a time when Attlee urged his ministers, in general, to present the foundations of the welfare state as an act of national reconciliation, Aneurin Bevan, on 4 July 1948, at Belle Vue, Manchester, claimed the reforms as the conscious rebuttal of a pre-war Britain and its condemnation of 'millions of first class people to semi-starvation'. It was 'the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences … [and] … so far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin' (Foot, 2.238). From now on, the 'Minister for Disease', as Churchill labelled him (ibid., 1.242), subjected to physical and verbal abuse by tories, was also seen as uncontrollable by key elements within his own party. Notwithstanding the probable spontaneity of the phraseology, both factions were instinctively right in thinking that Bevan not only meant to sound irreconcilable but also wished to serve notice that the Labour government, beyond the administration of things, should move to shift the 'social psychology' of British political culture once and for all. He had talked in 1945 of a quarter of a century of Labour government and 'the complete political extinction of the Tory Party'. The year 1948 was, in every sense, the high-water mark of his desire and his delivery.

Although Bevan never repudiated any of the work of the two Attlee governments in which he served, his acceptance of collective responsibility scarcely hid a growing unease with aspects of its foreign policy (too subservient to American global interest; insufficiently Zionist) and its nervous, increasingly orthodox, economic policy. This stiffened as the balance of payments crisis and the ‘dollar gap’ led to financial austerity and, in 1949, devaluation. The latter was particularly promoted by Hugh Gaitskell, minister of fuel and power and not yet in the cabinet. Bevan supported the policy as inevitable. Its unstated implications, public expenditure cuts, were to be the price to pay. Their extent and their focus were what required resolution. When Cripps as chancellor of the exchequer had raised in 1949 the prospect of prescription charges in the NHS Bevan had swallowed that principle, though the point was deferred. Now, after Labour's victory with a reduced majority in the general election of February 1950, issues of principle threatened to destroy Labour's unity. In this dispute, down to his resignation from the government in April 1951, Bevan has, too often, been painted as the sole instigator and perpetuator of such disunity.

Now that the cabinet minutes have been scrutinized by historians it is not a view which is sustainable, though it is indeed accurate to see Bevan, from early 1950, as being at odds with the way in which the domestic priorities of his government were being translated into the American language of global containment and military rearmament. His own translation, by Attlee in January 1951, to the Ministry of Labour (with health demoted to a non-cabinet office) scarcely calmed his misgivings. Now, on a regular basis, he had to confront the realignment of manpower attendant on quickening rearmament. Neither wage restraint nor threatening dock workers for illegal strikes sat easily with him, but he complied as a government minister; what stretched his loyalty to incredulity was the manner in which the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950) led, by August, when his first open disavowal is recorded, to a rearmament programme whose scale menaced the social and welfare capacities of the administration. His erstwhile ally, Sir Stafford Cripps, had retired on grounds of ill health in October 1950 and Hugh Gaitskell, Bevan's nemesis in this as in much else, was catapulted into the cabinet as chancellor of the exchequer. Bevan may have harboured vague hopes for the job, though more so for the foreign secretaryship which went to Herbert Morrison in March 1951, and certainly, with the steady loss of the government's elder statesmen, was being urged by Jennie Lee and Michael Foot to 'lead the left' as a precursor to leading, one day soon, the entire movement. Steadily and loyally, however, his critique was neither petty nor personal: it was, in a nutshell, that Gaitskell, demanding defence expenditure of £4700 million over three years, was miscalculating both what was strictly possible and what was socially desirable. Besides, the policy had been impelled not by any impeccable economic logic but by Attlee's visit to President Truman in December 1950 when Britain, in Bevan's cutting phrase, allowed itself 'to be dragged … behind the wheels of American diplomacy' (Foot, 2.335).

Bevan's objections, then, were twofold—he did not believe that the ideological war against communism, whose totalitarian regimes he loathed, was best fought by military posturing under an American banner; and he, specifically, saw no logic in levering money out of the NHS by imposing charges on spectacles and dentures (both quite symbolic appliances to an inter-war working class deprived of both) when the finance to be raised was only £23 million in a full year. If necessary the NHS budget, rising way beyond initial expectations but, as the Conservative government's Guillebaud committee of 1955 demonstrated, actually remarkably efficient value for money, could be capped and 'efficiencies' found within it. Gaitskell, however, pressed relentlessly on. The budget he wished to present would impose those particular charges. He felt the cabinet's authority, and most certainly his own (for he too threatened resignation), was at stake. Attlee, not for the first time, let matters drift. After the budget had gone before the house, Bevan brooded for two weeks—so intense was his inner battle between not splitting the government and, as he saw it, saving its soul—and then, in April 1951, with two junior colleagues, Harold Wilson and John Freeman, he resigned.

Bevan and the Bevanites

In the general election of October 1951 Labour increased its popular vote by over a million, but, with the Liberals fielding many fewer candidates in the second general election within eighteen months, the Conservatives won a majority of seats. Within the year Gaitskell's unrealistic budget—'a political and economic disaster' in the words of that Labour government's historian, Kenneth O. Morgan (Morgan, 456)—had been overturned by a Conservative Party whose calculations on actually deliverable defence expenditure matched Bevan's own. Bevan's support within the Labour Party now rested firmly in the country and in the constituency sections; to the official hierarchy and to the trade unions, whose finance and block votes at party conferences dictated that hierarchy's personnel and policies, he was anathema. Bevanism was born in the throes of a civil war. In 1951 he headed the list of NEC members voted on by the constituency section of the party.

Despite the affiliation of close associates to the 'Keep Left' group formed during his tenure of office and the sharp criticisms mounted of Attlee's governments in Tribune, Bevan had, necessarily, kept himself aloof from any alternative leadership (when Cripps had attempted a coup against Attlee in 1947 Bevan was distinctly not interested in any such move). Now, with five supporters voted onto the NEC in 1952 and the official opposition supine, as he felt, in the growing crisis of the cold war, he had no compunction about allowing a semi-organized group (the Bevanites) to coalesce, via public pronouncements and parliamentary caucus, around his name. The Labour Party's standing orders had explicitly banned any unofficial groups inside the party after the bitter 1952 conference. By dint of personality, not just his own, and disinclination, more clearly his than others, this faction never properly became a 'party-within-a-party', but its constant refusal to toe a party line made it seem definitively so to those who now saw the expulsion of Bevan as the antidote to chronic party disunity. His own role, a permanent minority within the shadow cabinet to which he had been elected in 1952, was to serve as a barometer of these discontents: in 1954 his dissociation, in the house, from Attlee's support of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation led to rebuke and resignation. Dissent from the Labour Party's foreign policy line rumbled on: the Bevanites stood out against German rearmament, and in 1955 it was another international matter which came close to causing a final breach.

This time Bevan appeared to contradict and humiliate Attlee directly in a Commons debate. Labour had moved an official amendment to the Conservative government's endorsement of the manufacture of the H-bomb and its retaliatory use even against conventional attack. The tinkering amendment, however, challenged neither assumption directly. Bevan asked publicly for Attlee's clarification over weapons' use. He did not get it, and so abstained. Gaitskell and Morrison, though not Attlee, now urged his full expulsion as a party member on the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the shadow cabinet, and the NEC. Bevan narrowly survived. More importantly he offered a personal apology to Attlee. His jousting within the party was coming to an end. Perhaps he was wearying of failure, since his lifelong philosophy that ideals without power was not politics was becoming self-fulfilling.

Thus, in 1954 Bevan had left the NEC to challenge for the vacant treasurership of the Labour Party, a largely symbolic but important party post. He knew he would not win against Gaitskell, behind whom the right-wing votes of the Transport and General Workers' Union and the Municipal and General Workers' Union were rallied (he actually won NUM support in 1956), but, decades ahead of his time, was repudiating the 'irresponsible group of trade union bureaucrats' who were deciding 'the policy of the Labour Party' (Foot, 2.439–40). He was adamant, too, that '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' (Jones, Rift and Conflict, 34). Natural, or not, within the existing framework, Gaitskell not only won there, he scooped the leadership after Labour lost its second election in a row in 1955 and Attlee retired. Gaitskell won an absolute majority of the PLP on the first ballot (157 votes) with Bevan (70) and Morrison (40) left behind.

Recrimination and reconciliation

Any effective challenge to Gaitskell was now doomed. Bevan continued to make the case for a greater, not lesser, socialist dimension within the party, alongside a perennial call for education and consciousness-raising. He seemed also to accept that this was, again, a minority position to take. His task was to use his stature to see that it was not marginalized. He did not contest the leadership in 1956 and, with Gaitskell, mounted a telling campaign inside and outside parliament against Eden's collusive Suez adventure. Inside the shadow cabinet he was first given responsibility for colonial affairs and then for foreign affairs. Observers claimed to notice a greater thoughtfulness, a mellowing tinge, in his words and deeds. In 1957, after defeating George Brown, he became, at last, party treasurer. Abroad, his presence and influence was eagerly sought by a galaxy of international statesmen including Mendes France, Nenni, and Nehru. Many of these visited him at his last, delightful home (Asheridge Farm, Buckinghamshire), where a slightly unexpectedly bucolic Bevan beamed and, as ever, waxed eloquent ('star-tapping', he called it) on the literary, musical, and artistic tastes he had somehow, as if by osmosis in his packed life, bred into his bone. Always there would be, via a Marx whose materialism he never rejected, passing reference to the romantic libertarian, the Uruguayan Jose Rodo, whose Motives of Proteus (1929) he had long made his own. Part of his immense charm was his ability, indeed eagerness, to slough off pursuit of political trivia in the cause of good food, wine, and conversation. For many close acquaintances he was, in these moods, a boon companion.

Geniality was soured by the worst kind of quarrel, a family affair. In hindsight it was long coming. Bevan had always been impatient with the left's reluctance to become complicit with power-broking. He had sat in a cabinet that had approved British manufacture of the atomic bomb; he did not disapprove of similar British involvement in the hydrogen bomb. His concern was with British influence at four-power talks to secure multilateral nuclear disarmament. So, despite overlapping ambiguities of expression and intent, he was never a unilateral disarmer and, therefore, was isolated from an increasingly significant trend within the party and the wider labour movement. It all came to a head at the Brighton conference of 1957 when, speaking on behalf of the executive, he famously insisted that those who wished unilaterally to renounce the bomb, without consultation with allies or others, would send a British foreign secretary 'naked into the Conference Chamber' (Foot, 2.574). He was taken to mean 'naked' as 'disarmed'. In fact, he clearly meant 'naked' as having no power to affect the dealings of others. That was 'statesmanship'. The rest was, and his words flayed the skin of those who adored him but disagreed with him on this, 'an emotional spasm' (ibid., 2.575).

Jennie Lee clung to the view that his decline and fatal illness had their terrible origins in the bitterness of the rift here made. Michael Foot, who succeeded Bevan as MP for Ebbw Vale, was not immune from her wrath. Bevan himself, as in the 1959 general election, seemed to go out of his way to act as healer and reconciler, still adamant to the end that only the Labour Party, defeated for a third time in a decade, could rescue Britain from the vulgarity of a 'meretricious society'. To this end, despite private misgivings which were never allayed, he unstintingly supported Gaitskell's leadership and official party policy in these last years. At the party's inquest, in Blackpool in October 1959, he made one of his last great speeches, still invoking 'the language of priorities' as 'the religion of socialism' and still hammering home the message that 'the argument is about power … because only by the possession of power can you get the priorities correct' (Foot, 2.645). He was elected, unopposed, as deputy leader and treasurer of the party.

The mind still flared, but even to the most casual eye Bevan's body was betraying him. An exploratory operation at the end of December 1959 revealed a malignant cancer in the stomach. He returned to Asheridge, ostensibly to recuperate. The full truth was kept from him. On several occasions he rallied and talked of a vigorous re-entry into public life, but on 6 July 1960, at Asheridge Farm, he finally succumbed and died; his ashes were scattered above Tredegar.

His reputation

Bevan's death established, at once, that widespread affection and respect for his life had caused a real sense of public grief. Press obituaries and a well-attended service in Westminster Abbey appeared to give him the final accolades of respectability and responsibility. Yet in his life itself nothing could have seemed less likely or less welcome. Aneurin Bevan was that rare being, a practical politician with a philosophy for his actions beyond the minutiae of political activity, which was, in turn, only the means to achieve social and cultural ends. When Bevan's petulance and egotism are assessed, along with his misjudgments and errors, his real substance as the pre-eminent British proponent of democratic socialism in the twentieth century outweighs everything. The NHS still survives as the last great, decidedly socialist, monument of the 1945 Labour government. His own legacy has been invoked, sometimes bewilderingly given his class-driven politics, by successive generations of Labour and new Labour leaders. His coruscating phrases are still mint fresh in the mouths of others; his political testament, In Place of Fear (1952), as fragmented and filigree brilliant as the man himself, remains in use and in print. Some of the tales of past struggles were given new lustre by Michael Foot, whose two-volume life of Bevan (1962, 1974) is a literary masterpiece of filial piety and historical evocation. Jennie Lee, who survived him to become in 1965 minister for the arts in Harold Wilson's first government and went to the Lords as Baroness Lee of Asheridge in 1970, tended his flame in the very title of her autobiography, My Life with Nye (1980). In 1972, on the open moorland above his valleys constituency, she dedicated four massively hewn standing stones to his memory. The memory did not fade. There were to be numerous streets and council estates and hospital wards in his name across Britain, and an evocatively demonstrative statue in the main thoroughfare of Cardiff, Wales' capital city, was erected in 1987.

The centenary of Bevan's birth in 1997 was attended by extensive memorial celebrations in Wales and London, by further books and broadcasts about him, and by a national press row over the network television screening of a provocative BBC Wales screenplay by Trevor Griffiths which eventually won a Royal Television Society award. He could always cause trouble. He was a believer in beginnings over endings and this may yet, when the dust of his moment has finally settled, prove to be the source of his lasting appeal.

Sources

  • M. Foot, Aneurin Bevan: a biography, 2 vols. (1962–73)
  • D. Smith, Aneurin Bevan and the world of south Wales (1993)
  • P. Hollis, Jennie Lee: a life (1997)
  • J. Lee, My life with Nye (1980)
  • C. Webster, The health services since the war, 1 (1988)
  • J. Campbell, Nye Bevan and the mirage of British socialism (1987)
  • K. O. Morgan, Labour in power, 1945–1951 (1984)
  • G. Goodman, ed., The state of the nation: the political legacy of Aneurin Bevan (1997)
  • The Times (7 July 1960)
  • J. G. Jones, ‘Evan Davies and Ebbw Vale’, Llafur, 3 (1982)
  • J. G. Jones, ‘Rift and conflict within the labour party in the 1950s: letters from Aneurin Bevan’, Llafur, 7 (1997)

Archives

  • NL Wales, letters to Ebbw Vale CLP, related MSS and corresp.
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook
  • Wellcome L., corresp. with Sir Ernst Chain

Film

  • BFINA, ‘Profile’, 25 May 1959
  • BFINA, ‘Nye Bevan talking to Jill Cragie’, 1960
  • BFINA, ‘Nye!’, 7 July 1965
  • BFINA, ‘Nye’, 2 May 1982
  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, news footage
  • BFINA, party political footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, ‘Nye’
  • BL NSA, ‘Nye I knew’, M4676R C1
  • BL NSA, ‘Makers of modern politics: Aneurin Bevan, the politician as hero’, H511612
  • BL NSA, current affairs recordings
  • BL NSA, party political recordings
  • IWM SA, ‘Great political speeches’, BBC Radio 4, 4 Sept 1992, 12801
  • IWM SA, oral history interview

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1934–59, Hult. Arch.
  • D. Low, pencil caricature, 1935, NPG
  • C. Beaton, photograph, 1940, NPG [see illus.]
  • P. Lambda, bronze bust, 1945, NPG
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1945, NPG
  • F. Topolski, charcoal, 1954, NPG
  • H. Coster, photographs, NPG
  • R. Thomas, statue, Queens Street, Cardiff
  • photographs, NPG

Wealth at Death

£23,481 0s. 2d.: probate, 22 Nov 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales