Andy Bevan reviews ‘Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan’ by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds
Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan
I B Tauris, 2015, £20
Aneurin Bevan is still very much with us, 55 years after his death. He is cited daily, usually in current debate about the health service, and we are surrounded by reminders of the man – especially in Wales. His statue, at the end of Queen Street, seems to urge shoppers to assail Cardiff Castle. At Gabalfa, a pub is named after him. More reasonably, a few miles further north up the A470, a Health Board and a thinktank bear his name – along with dozens of Closes, Courts and Crescents on social housing schemes. So, this new biography by Nick Thomas-Symonds reconsiders the life and legacy of someone who still matters.
And everyone in Wales to the left of the Tories seems to want a slice of Aneurin Bevan. The poor man has been sanctified and sanitised over the years to make him fit the political tastes of some real trimmers who have long ago made their peace with the rule of Big Business and the ‘free market’. Bevan would have been appalled. Nick Thomas-Symonds reminds us in the early chapters of his biography of the seam from which Aneurin Bevan was hewn as a class war socialist and an inveterate opponent of the Tory Party and the British ruling class.
Yet, as we move through the pages towards more recent times, Thomas-Symonds starts to tell a conventional story about a left-winger who abandons the brutish and naïve simplicities of his youthful years; the ‘statesmanship’ and ‘pragmatism’ of the ‘mature’ Bevan are emphasised. ‘Aneurin Bevan was a man of power,’ Thomas-Symonds tells us. ‘His period as a Cabinet minister had brought out the best in him.’ Earlier, and again rather conventionally, we read: ‘The creation of the NHS was an incontestable achievement which, even putting aside the rest of his political career, makes Bevan one of the greatest twentieth century government ministers.’
There is a case to be made, though, for an alternative assessment and one which is truer to Bevan’s origins and stated purpose; a narrative around the loss to office of the labour movement’s foremost left-wing leader. From that point of view, Bevan’s political zenith would be from the founding of Tribune in January 1937 to the Labour landslide itself in July 1945. At Tribune, he worked closely with other anti-Stalinist socialists, including George Orwell (who had returned from the ranks of the POUM militia in 1937) and Evelyn Anderson, author of the magnificent Hammer or Anvil, analysing with forensic precision the zigzags and blunders of the Comintern in Germany 1928-1933. Jennie Lee’s pro-ILP view of the world was a vital factor too – and Thomas-Symonds gives due credit.
Tribune – with a huge influence among the most active rank and file Labour Party members – and the Left Book Club played the role of a super-effective thinktank, disseminating socialist ideas. This role became even more crucial when Labour joined the wartime coalition government, with an electoral truce between the main parties. In those circumstances, Tribune spoke for those in the labour movement who felt disenfranchised by coalition politics. And Bevan spoke loudest and most effectively of all through the pages of Tribune and from the backbenches in parliament. Despite the coalition straitjacket, and as a long-established anti-appeaser and anti-fascist, he systematically attacked Churchill and the Tories, upholding an independent working class angle on the war against Hitler and the fight for workers’ rights at home.
One of Bevan’s constant themes, learning from the soldiers’ bitter disappointments with the broken promises of 1918, was that the Tories could not ‘win the peace’. Bevan argued for the breaking of the wartime coalition at the earliest opportunity. He sensed very early on that a desire for radical change would lift a Labour Government to office once Hitler was defeated and that wartime measures regulating private enterprise in the planned interests of the war effort would make Labour’s tasks in nationalising basic industries more straightforward. In the heady days after VE Day, a revolutionary mood swept Britain. Above all others, Bevan gave it a voice.
In July 1945, Bevan accepted Attlee’s shrewd offer of a cabinet post. The sheer detail of his new tasks and the constraints of ‘collective responsibility’ meant that the left lost its outstanding leader. Bevan is revered, of course, as the founder of the NHS. But the plain fact is that an NHS had been promised, with cross-party support, in the Beveridge Report of 1942 and a Tory Minister of Health, Henry Willink, had started negotiations on a National Health Service with the BMA in 1944 (unhelpfully for Bevan as it turned out). In any event, Bevan’s final measures for the establishment of the NHS in July 1948 arguably made some harmful and unnecessary concessions. Other Labour ministers (like Jim Griffiths) could surely have made at least as good a job of delivering Labour’s manifesto pledge for a comprehensive NHS free at the point of use.
Did Bevan find himself being ‘co-opted’ (in Ralph Miliband’s phrase) by the trappings of power? Did he at times lose touch with his stated lifelong mission? In any event, during the last year of the Labour Government, Bevan was moved to the Ministry of Labour and Hilary Marquand took over at Health. This last year in office was marred by the new Chancellor Gaitskell’s insistence on imposing health service charges (for specs and teeth) and the consequent resignation from office of Bevan, John Freeman and Harold Wilson. This is widely held to have been a major factor in Labour losing the 1951 General Election (despite winning more votes than the Tories).
In opposition, Bevan became a thorn in the side of the Labour leadership, focusing on the need for an ill-thought-out ‘third way’ in world politics between the big blocs of the US and the USSR. His criticisms of Labour’s foreign policy ultimately led to the threat of expulsion (narrowly averted) in 1955. After Labour’s defeat at the General Election of 1955, Bevan sought a rapprochement with Gaitskell and, at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton in 1957 he broke the hearts of the ‘Bevanites’, including Michael Foot, by renouncing unilateral disarmament. All of this is reliably traced by Thomas-Symonds.
Nye is compact, concise, accessible and – with the exception of his tendentious and desultory treatment of the New Left of the 1970s and the ‘Hard Left’ (sic) of the 1980s – well referenced. In dealing with the 1950s and the 1980s, the modern reader needs to weigh the approach to policy and party discipline of Gaitskell and Kinnock – two Labour leaders who never won a general election – against those of Bevan and Benn – who never had the opportunity to lead the Labour Party. Thomas-Symonds strikes a neutral and explanatory stance in relation to the long-gone 1950s but, quite unnecessarily for a biographer of Bevan, takes a partisan but unargued stance (effectively against Benn and his supporters) for the 1980s.
In understanding the controversies which shaped Aneurin Bevan, Thomas-Symonds offers a well waymarked path. Somehow, though, the passion is missing and the reader may feel the need to seek out also Bevan’s own words in Why Not Trust the Tories (1944), In Place of Fear (1952) and his last Conference speech of 1959.