Wales needs to move past Bevanism

Tim Williams says today’s Wales needs a contemporary welfare system.

I have so many heresies I don’t know where to start. This one is about the uselessness of Bevanism and the suspicion that Wales won’t make progress until its throws off Bevan’s incubus which has bedevilled Welsh intellectuals for too long.

It’s often forgotten that Bevan opposed Beveridge from the Left. In the Parliamentary debates on the Beveridge Report in 41 and 42 Bevan took an ultra left perspective sneering at the reformism behind Beveridge. If anyone wants to understand the uselessness of Bevanism and its lack of leverage over reality just read those debates.

Wales was lucky historically – certainly until the economic demolition of Thatcher which destroyed jobs for unskilled people in areas now abandoned except by welfarism – that the welfare state was imposed against Bevanism.  At least we had something  to keep our people warm whilst they waited for socialism a la Bevan…..

I add: the Welsh admired Bevan for his rhetoric and his chutzpah and the fact that the Tories were intimidated by him. But Wales has never been Bevanite. More Bevinite (realist ,pragmatic) really though Bevin never gets celebrated mostly because he was anti-communist and thus for parts of the Welsh intelligentsia beyond the Pale. The fact that Bevin built the home front, built the trade union  movement, built the welfare state, defended the West against the Soviets etc all gets dismissed in favour of a romantic ‘Bollinger Bolshevik’  on the take from Beaverbrook! (Of the two of them guess which one had the Big House way beyond what his parliamentary salary paid for ?). Bevan was politically uncompromising (except right at the end)but he loved the high life.  Bevin was a puritan by contrast.Both personally and politically Bevin stands head and shoulders above Bevan. I think a Welsh political class which understood that would leave Wales a better place than it is..

If Bevanism was a form of utopianism and welfarism a good early  shield but not a contemporary sword for our people, where do we go now, especially since welfare is now in itself the economic backbone of so many of our frankly unsustainable communities – when it was never intended for that purpose?.  In my view the Beveridge welfare state was progressive for the working class until the economy in certain areas collapsed. Then that welfarism became an alternative to work, long term.  Moreover, welfare is effectively enabling people to survive (no more than) in places which themselves are now not just the place in which multigenerational unemployment happens but to some degree the origin of that problem. Places which simply cannot sustain work.

We know we have whole communities – largely remote housing estates – in which 70% of people or more are not in work and will never find work. Two problems lie behind this: yes, capitalist economic restructuring but yes also a welfare provision which enables people  to live but not flourish in failed places.This strikes me as so much the biggest issue in South Wales. The welfare debate is secondary to either sorting out those failed places or enabling our people to live in economically more vibrant places. We do neither.Then we blame people for being welfare dependent when if they are to live in these failed places there is no choice but for them to be married to the welfare state. The bigger question is :do they have to live there?

Short of sorting that bigger issue, I do believe some positive link can be made between the form of welfare provision and the need to re-skill and empower our people. As centralised welfare models have helped  disempower a working class once known for self-organisation , so cooperative models of self provision should be reintroduced – not just to diversity the number of models but to help lift people out of the dependency we have created. But where will they get jobs.? The recent Hallam study showed that 70,000 jobs are required in the Valleys to raise them up to UK levels of worklessness. Is that credible?

Sentiment is fine as long as we don’t sacrifice real people to it. Our slogan should be ‘neither Bevanism nor welfarism’ though there’re must be a positive somewhere. For me the issue is that we  have economically unviable communities in which poor people congregate and that concentration then makes the outcomes worse.Unless we bring jobs and skills to such places we are merely keeping places going on a minimum care and maintenance basis using the word ‘community ‘ as a cover for our failure. Our people deserve better opportunities than these places are able to give them.    The choice we need to enable them to make is not to choose the colour of lipstick on the corpse but to move to more viable communities where they can get off welfare.

I say this because I’m tired of the bullshit around ‘community’ in South Wales . A ‘community’ without jobs is a parody. Bevan and Bevin would have understood that. Final point. I can find no support or model in Bevereidge, Bevan or Bevin – or Raymond Williams – for the type of long term welfare dependent villages we have ,by accident or design, created. This result was in no-one’s programme or ideals. It’s not in mine.

Tim Williams who blogs at ( is director of the Publicani consultancy and is currently working on projects in Australia, where he now lives. He is a former special advisor to the Blair government and the Welsh Government. Prior to moving to Australia in December 2010 he was managing director of Navigant Consulting.

6 thoughts on “Wales needs to move past Bevanism

  1. Tim Williams makes a trenchant point or two here but, as usual, he weakens his argument by a failed rhetorical device that seems to be his trademark. It goes as follows: take a historical figure admired by many in Wales. Judge that figure by the standards of a different age using information not available to them at the time and denigrate them on that unhistorical basis. Use this character assassination as the basis for making points about contemporary politics. Sometimes his points stand up, sometimes they don’t but in neither case are they helped by the cheap iconoclasm.

  2. This article is full of mistakes. Nowhere in Wales has economic inactivity of 70%. Bevanism was about a free welfare state, nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, decent housing and full employment – not a peep about ‘community’.

  3. Historical reassessment of the popular image of Aneurin Bevan is long overdue. Yes, he had his virtues: no one denies his talent as an orator; his rise from poverty must surely command respect; and he was developing a commendable pragmatic streak toward the end when he finally grew up a bit.

    Against that, he was, as even Michael Foot’s hagiography makes clear, not a brave rebel but a fully paid-up member of the South Wales Labour Establishment. Far from being ‘the father of the NHS’ – that was the forgotten Conservative Sir Henry Willink – Bevan was the arrogant obstetrician who botched the delivery. Worst of all, during the great struggle against Hitler which defines every member of his generation, Bevan was busy making a ‘squalid nuisance’ of himself.

    Dr Williams is therefore incorrect to suggest that Welsh Labour is more Bevinite than Bevanite. The administrative incompetence, the ideological blindness, and the faint whiff of corruption Bevan brought with him from Welsh local government and trade union politics are still very much still with us.

    On the broader issue of the ‘welfare state,’ there can be no doubt that, with the benefit of modern management theory and the hindsight of seven decades of experience, Lord Beveridge would recommend a more decentralised system today. The more mature Bevan might have agreed.

  4. Excellent piece. Exposes Bevan’s many weaknesses and pops the “myth of Bevan” that has grown exponentially since his passing. Bevan was not only a ‘champagne socialist’ lbut also an ardent British nationalist, who hads little real time for his Welsh homeland. A man of the Commons his finest oratory – and it was truly exceptional at times – was often reserved for point scoring against the Conservative upper classes on the benches opposite. One always felt that he was jealous of them, more than anything else. As SusieSouix correctly points out, Nye didn’t do ‘community’ in any tangible sense. His was an ideology of opposition; though he often chose the wrong targets. He certainly had little understanding of place (or peoples, for that matter).

Comments are closed.

Also within Culture