In 1962, John Freeman – a former Labour MP and editor of the New Statesman – used the publication of the first volume of Michael Foot’s biography of Aneurin Bevan as an excuse for his own assessment of the man he knew. Bevan, Freeman thought, may have been “the greatest figure the British Labour movement has produced” but he was also “a failure” who served “lesser men”. Freeman seems to have had little inkling of the importance of the NHS to the British people and dismissed Bevan’s legacy as “the enduring (if slightly chipped) memorial of the Health Service”.
To me, Aneurin Bevan is the greatest figure the British Labour movement has produced. I add that this personal judgement is sober and unsentimental. For I was not one of those who were totally captivated by his charm; though from time to time we worked together, I do not pretend that our relation was one of intimate personal affection. He was great because he had almost all the talents the politician needs: he had the golden gift of oratory; the true oratory of content (which argues and expounds and persuades, not the hollow diapason of mechanical rhetoric).
He was both a thinker and a doer, a man of principles forged on the anvil of dialectic, who understood that the purpose of principles is to inspire action, not to provide a substitute for it; he scorned humbug and never yielded to fear; he linked to a very considerable autodidact’s learning a towering imagination which only Churchill equalled among his contemporaries; he cared more than anything in the world for his country and for the well-being of the ordinary men and women who make it great.
And yet he was a failure. He left behind him, it is true, the enduring (if slightly chipped) memorial of the Health Service, together with a memory and a myth. But he never captured the power which he himself realistically perceived was the objective of all political struggle. It is difficult to believe that his ultimate failure was brought about merely by the accidents of fate. When he died the opportunity of power had already become a mirage.
He had reached the twilight of his political life without ever rising higher than being the subordinate (and sometimes it seemed the prisoner) of lesser men. Such failure cannot have been accidental; it must be ascribed to defects within his own character or to critical failures of his own judgment.
Bevan is fortunate indeed to have Mr Michael Foot as his biographer — and even more fortunate to have had him as his friend. But the problems facing the friend who turns biographer are great. No one in his senses will doubt that Mr Foot has striven to present a fair and rounded portrait of his hero. The test that must be applied is whether the attractive and brilliant character portrayed by Mr Foot has implicit in it the seeds of ultimate failure. Judgment at this stage must be tentative because Mr Foot has presented us with only half his work.
This first volume is Bevan’s story from his birth in 1897 to the general election of 1945 — the formative years. The years of real opportunity, of ministerial responsibility, of the final challenge for power and its anti-climactic ending await a second volume. Whether a biography of this massive length (the first volume runs to something like 190,000 words) is the best way of preserving Bevan for posterity may be arguable. Certainly a far shorter pastiche could give the public a far more colourful impression of Bevan’s superficial qualities and personal behaviour.
But Mr Foot’s purpose, as he states bluntly in his opening paragraph, is “to describe the political values which Aneurin Bevan sustained throughout his life and the major political battles in which he engaged… I cannot claim to have portrayed the richness of his personality. Such an achievement is beyond my powers. In any case no printed words can repair the loss of the voice, the gestures, the mind and the vitality of the man.”
Repair or not, something of this extraordinary vitality could, I think, be conveyed in words and I hope will be before memory is too far faded. Not perhaps by Mr Foot, who may be too closely involved to disentangle emotion from observation at that level. Indeed, the weakest chapter in this fine biography is the one where he briefly departs from the mainstream of the narrative to convey a more intimate portrait of “the man”.
Nothing in this chapter is, as far as I know, untrue or irrelevant; yet it is a curiously unlifelike portrait of the Bevan I knew some years later. One detects a certain falseness of touch, as if these aspects of Aneurin are still too intimate and tender for Mr Foot to write about without a certain self-conscious determination to portray charm and decency at all costs. Both charm and decency were there all right, but deeper rooted and more organic than Mr Foot’s digression into nice-chapmanship.
For the rest, his monumental method is justified. Aneurin Bevan was pre-eminently a political person, and his real importance lies in his political actions. Those actions were so vigorous and on such a wide front that Bevan can be both delineated and judged from the public record more accurately than any other politician who never led a party or a government. And this is how he would himself have wished to be judged.
There is a current fashion among both politicians and warriors to run with the pack but privately to confide to the diary all sorts of face-saving reservations, the publication of which in due time will go far to establish a reputation for both prescience and courage. Bevan scorned such tricks. The action open to the politician is to strike attitudes and advocate causes in public. In the machinery of government and party management, there will of course be occasions for private pressure and backstairs manoeuvre to secure particular stated ends. But the ends must be stated.
In Bevan’s view, the struggle had to be conducted in front of the electorate and no politician could claim to be judged other than on the record. Bevan’s public record of 40 political years is an immense one, but it is complete and a serious political biography must rest upon it. For some readers, Mr Foot’s densely packed and meticulously documented account may seem heavy going, but not for anybody with the sense to see that a full biography of Bevan is in itself a textbook of political grammar and ideas, which future generations will find far more valuable than the Labour party ever did in Bevan’s lifetime.
The method, then, is a proper one — indeed for Mr Foot’s purpose the only proper one. How close does the portrait come to the man? Clearly by using this method Mr Foot insures himself against the more obvious risks of personal bias: the evidence after all is presented (or at any rate a great deal of it is, and the selection has been made with scrupulous fairness) and the reader is as well placed as Mr Foot to make his judgment of Bevan.
And yet I think Mr Foot’s objectivity can be faulted — not so much perhaps in the portrait of Bevan himself as in the background from which that portrait takes its dimensions. Can it, after all, be purely due to the malevolence and folly of all except our hero that Bevan never succeeded in winning his battles until the victory was too late to be meaningful? There was a large, one would have thought decisive, measure of justice on his side in most of his great causes: in his quick appreciation of the far-reaching dangers of fascism, in the Popular Front campaign, in at least some parts of his criticism of war strategy, above all in his post-war critique of the Labour party’s cold war state, events subsequently proved him substantially right and the leaders of the Labour party substantially wrong. Yet in none of these cases did he succeed when it mattered in converting the majority of his colleagues or significantly changing Labour policy. Why not?
Labour MPs are not (and were not, I believe, in the Thirties) quite the morons that Mr Foot seems to imply. Attlee was not quite such a narrow-minded fool or Dalton quite such an opportunist crook as they appear in this book. The truth is that throughout his career Bevan was possessed by an impatience and an intemperance of language which robbed many of his arguments at the time of the conviction they carry now.
Moreover, his impatience and his deeply rooted suspicion of authority, wherever it lay, clouded his tactical judgments throughout his political career. Never did a great advocate lose more cases than Bevan — and almost every time because his colleagues wrongly suspected his motives. Jealous and short-sighted many of those colleagues may have been, but I have myself seen Bevan spoil many good hands and I am sure that this insensitivity to the feelings of those who disagreed with him amounted to a real and important political fault.
Mr Foot not only fails to establish this blemish in an otherwise refulgent figure, but by failing to do justice to the doubts and reservations of those who opposed Bevan he makes the behaviour of the parliamentary Labour party almost completely inexplicable. That it was usually reactionary, conservative and wrong, I agree; but it is inexplicable only in Mr Foot’s somewhat partial account of it.
It now seems to me that Bevan’s judgments often turned on his notions about democratic control and the role that parliament should play in it. Already before the war the conflict between the parliamentary Labour party and the people of Ebbw Vale was established in Bevan’s mind. But at that time it was a romantic concept.
Later on, the divergent interests of a self-perpetuating bureaucratic leadership and an aspiring but frustrated rank and file became more real and functional. The turning point in Bevan’s career may have been in 1944 at the time of his resistance to Regulation 1AA, which outlawed strikes in “the performance of essential services”. Almost incredibly, Ernest Bevin had squared the TUC to support this monstrous regulation, and Bevan’s uncompromising resistance to it enabled Bevin to hang on to him the label of both disloyally to the leadership and hostility to the trade unions. In the post-war struggles that followed, it was Bevan’s inability at the crucial time to persuade a majority of his colleagues in parliament and the TUC that this label was slanderous and unjust which led to his ultimate failure.
The end of the story awaits Mr Foot’s second volume. So far he has carefully, thoroughly, lovingly and in the main fairly described the formation of the man who was to become the great catalyst of post-war British politics. The real value of what is obviously a major essay in political biography can be judged only when the work is complete.
Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)