Nye Davies explores the influence of Aneurin Bevan on the Assembly elections.
It wouldn’t surprise anyone in Wales that the NHS was one of the big battlegrounds during the recent National Assembly election, no more so considering the amount of scrutiny the health service has been under recently. It’s also not surprising that whenever the NHS is mentioned, Aneurin Bevan’s name inevitably crops up. Not just by the Labour party, but by all parties.
As one would expect, there were quite a few invocations of Bevan by Welsh Labour. Newly elected Gower AM Rebecca Evans claimed that “Under Labour, the NHS in Wales has stayed true to the vision of Aneurin Bevan”, proudly stating that there was no marketisation or privatisation in the Welsh NHS. Blaenau Gwent AM Alun Davies said he took “inspiration from great socialists such as Nye Bevan who were real revolutionaries”. While Welsh Labour did not mention Bevan in their manifesto, they did play on the popular narrative of a ‘Welsh NHS’ created by the Labour Party, stating that “The people of Wales love their Welsh NHS. We do too. It is our proudest achievement”.
In the BBC Wales Election Debate, Carwyn Jones put health at the forefront of his opening statement, attacking the Conservative Government over the junior doctors crisis and defending his Government’s record on the NHS. But this tactic immediately put him on the defensive as he had to deflect a barrage of criticism. In what turn out to be one of the most memorable moments of the debate itself, an audience member launched a passionate attack on Labour’s record on cancer treatment in Wales arguing that Aneurin Bevan would be “hanging his head in shame”, a point picked up on by the Welsh Conservative Twitter page. Aneurin Bevan can also be used as a weapon against Labour it seems.
Interestingly it was Plaid Cymru who were most frequently referencing Bevan. Plaid leader Leanne Wood has spoken of Bevan finding his inspiration in the Welsh valleys and has tried to portray the NHS as a Welsh achievement.
Their 2016 manifesto argued that “Wales now needs to conjure up the spirit of Bevan in reinventing a NHS for tomorrow’s Wales”, pledging to create a health service which would be akin to what Simon Thomas, on the BBC Wales Leaders’ Debate reaction programme, said would be reflective of “Bevan’s original vision of an NHS that was locally managed, locally run and locally responsible”.
Despite Bevan’s hostility to Welsh nationalism and his ambivalent views on devolution – “I do not know the difference between a Welsh sheep, a Westmorland sheep and a Scottish sheep” – invoking Bevan as a Welsh hero might well win over the Welsh electorate. Even the Green Party has been at it!
The Welsh Liberal Democrats have taken a different approach to the origins of the NHS. Of course it was the Liberal William Beveridge whose influential Beveridge Report was the foundation of the NHS. When Kirsty Williams wrote in the Western Mail in February expressing delight at the passing of her More Nurses Bill she proudly stated that the NHS was “invented” by a Liberal and her legislation was a “part of that tradition”.
At the Welsh Lib Dem Conference, party leader Tim Farron declared that “Wales is governed by a party that has spent over sixty years pretending that the NHS was wholly their idea. It wasn’t by the way. Beveridge was a liberal, Lloyd George was a liberal. Nye Bevan stood on the shoulders of those giants.” The extent to which the NHS is Bevan’s creation is an often heated point of contention and the Lib Dems are evidently not willing to succumb to the popular view of the creation of ‘Bevan’s NHS’. They can counter the popular narrative of ‘Labour’s NHS’ by attempting to convince the electorate that the Liberals are responsible for Britain’s most cherished institution. The Conservatives have at times also challenged the narrative of Labour’s NHS with Jeremy Hunt pointing out that Bevan created the NHS “four years after a Conservative Health Minister [Henry Willink’s White Paper A National Health Service] suggested it”.
Despite these contentions, the NHS is seen by the public as Bevan’s legacy, perhaps highlighted by the audience member’s comments to Carwyn Jones. It is therefore a useful tactic for politicians of all parties to invoke the legacy of Bevan when trying to talk up their proposals for the NHS. In Wales, opposition parties can use Bevan as a weapon when attacking Labour’s record on health, and can claim to be following the legacy of Wales’ ‘greatest hero’. As they attempt to defend their record on the NHS, Welsh Labour can use Bevan to convince voters of what the Labour Party can achieve when in power.
Carwyn Jones has acknowledged that, in view of Labour’s minority rule in the Assembly, his party has a responsibility to work with others “for the good of Wales”. Labour and Plaid’s shared admiration of Aneurin Bevan and his legacy could be a good place to start.