Caitlin Prowle reflects on Aneurin Bevan’s legacy 70 years after the birth of the NHS
This week, hundreds of events, marches, conferences and festivals across the UK are commemorating 70 years of our most treasured organisation, the National Health Service. But nowhere is the sense of celebration and pride stronger than in the South Wales Valleys; birthplace of the NHS and home to its most famous political export, Nye Bevan. While he may well have worked his way from the chambers of Tredegar Town Council to the lofty palaces of Westminster, Bevan never forgot the Valleys roots that put him there. The Valleys were a fundamental tenet of Bevan’s politics – when he famously talked of ‘Tredegarising’ the UK, I believe that he meant it.
“Bevan’s political ideals were carved out at the coalface”, Geoffrey Goodman, close friend to Nye, told the BBC in 2008. Having left school at just 13, Bevan’s years mining coal beneath the Valleys’ soaring mountains would have a lasting impact. Black lung disease, they called it, caused by exposure to and inhalation of coal dust. The young Nye must have watched countless friends, family members, comrades die at its hands. Indeed, it would eventually kill his own father. However, in spite of the debilitating diseases and ghastly working conditions, mining became synonymous with the South Wales Valleys. Even now, children are taken on school trips to mining towns, encouraged to remember this most important piece of our history. Bevan would not live to see the infamous miners’ strikes of the 1980s, where injustice sparked a fire and burned, fierce and persisting, throughout South Wales, but his passion and fervour was surely alive and well in that most tireless activism.
The birth of the NHS and the political nature of the Valleys are inextricably linked. The Valleys are, to borrow the words of Owen Sheers’ astonishing film poem for the BBC, To Provide All People, “a culture of communal ambition, in which power was a vehicle for ideas and ideas close cousins of action”. Aneurin Bevan was not the first trailblazing South Walean activist, and he won’t be the last. But he was the embodiment of the overtly political spirit of the South Wales Valleys. He represented not only the mining communities from which he hailed, but Newport’s insurgent 19th century Chartists and the Welsh suffragettes organising from across the Valleys. He represented the innovation of the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, the local initiative which would serve as an early model for the future of healthcare. He represented powerful Welsh oratory and fierce trade unionism. In him, the world saw a sense of community, collective action and resolute determinedness, values learned and witnessed through the activism running as deep as the coalface itself.
We must always remember that the NHS was and is a radical, revolutionary piece of policy. Bevan was faced with a war-torn Britain, diseased and injured, where the poor could rely only on charitable hospitals, where high infant mortality rates plagued working class communities and where women, ‘the silent majority’, consistently came last in the endless queues for care. And yet, in spite of it all, in spite of fraught battles with a powerful British Medical Association, a cynical and stubborn Establishment, political and personal vitriol, the National Health Service emerged. But the NHS was more than a political victory. More than a legislative success, more than a vote won by the government. The NHS was so much more because it held the power to save and change lives.
Would we have a National Health Service if Bevan had never lived? Maybe. Would the NHS look and feel the same if Bevan had not hailed from these persistent, political Valleys? Who knows. One thing, though, is certain. Like me, Aneurin Bevan had the pleasure and privilege of calling South Wales his home. Our home may be small, but it is mighty. Our home has struggled. It has battled, it has been wounded, it has fought and overcome and persisted and survived. It is a force to be reckoned with.
As we celebrate these last 70 years and look forward to the next, may we always remember not just the man, but the community on which he stood. May their legacy never be forgotten.
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