Aneurin Bevan, stormy petrel of the Labour left

A new biography shows Aneurin Bevan’s Marxist doggedness was prescient.

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Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan
Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds
I.B.Tauris, 336pp, £25

Aneurin Bevan died at 62, nine months after Labour’s humiliating defeat in the 1959 election. For years he had been the stormy petrel of the Labour left. He was born in Tredegar, on the eastern side of the South Wales coalfield. He went down the pit at 13; in his flawed masterpiece In Place of Fear (1952), he wrote that he thought of himself less as a politician than as “a projectile discharged from the Welsh valleys”.

As Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds shows in his magisterial new biography, Bevan was as much a child of South Wales as Lloyd George was of north Wales – or, for that matter, as Gordon Brown is of Kirkcaldy. The coalfield of his youth was both a nursery of political talent and a seedbed of ideological ferment. The chapel-going, consensual Liberal-Labour culture of the 19th century was in retreat. In 1898 Llais Llafur (“Labour Voice”), the first socialist paper in Wales, was founded in the Tawe Valley in West Glamorgan. In 1900 Keir Hardie, the champion of Independent Labour, was elected as MP for Merthyr. In 1912, a “reform committee”, led by the syndicalist miner Noah Ablett, published a manifesto entitled The Miners’ Next Step, calling for workplace self-government in place of parliamentary democracy. This was Bevan’s inheritance. He became one of the greatest parliamentarians of his generation, an impeccably dressed habitué of the Café Royal, a friend of Beaverbrook’s, a self-styled “aristocrat” and the most charismatic Labour politician since Ramsay MacDonald in his prime. But the South Wales coalfield was in his blood.

For a while he flirted with Ablett’s syndicalism, but the failure of the 1926 General Strike convinced him that direct action led nowhere. Parliamentary democracy, he came to believe, was a “sword pointed at the heart of property-power”. In 1929, aged 31, he was elected to parliament for the rock-safe Labour seat of Ebbw Vale. But he was as stormy a petrel in Westminster as he had been in Tredegar; his first impression of the House of Commons, he wrote later, was that it was a shrine dedicated to “the most conservative of all religions – ancestor worship”. He railed against the second Labour government that imploded in confusion and ignominy in 1931 and frequently found himself at odds with the unadventurous Labour leadership in the 1930s. Along with his mentor Stafford Cripps, later the Attlee government’s iron chancellor, he was briefly expelled from the Labour Party on the eve of the Second World War for advocating a popular front. During the war he was the leading parliamentary critic of Winston Churchill. “The prime minister,” he declared in a deadly phrase in 1942, a few months after the loss of Singapore, “wins debate after debate and loses battle after battle.” His barbs hit home; Churchill called him a “squalid nuisance”. Undaunted, he repeatedly savaged the two leading Labour members of Churchill’s coalition cabinet, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison.

He was always a warrior. No one who heard his onslaught on the Suez war during the great Trafalgar Square demonstration of 4 November 1956 will easily forget it. But by the end of his life, he had also become a healer. In a beautifully judged speech to a fractious party conference after the Conservatives’ 1959 victory, he did his best to bridge the ominous gap between the “revisionists” on the right and the “fundamentalists” on the left. For years he had been the darling of ordinary party members; little by little, he began to reach beyond them to a wider public. As Thomas-Symonds puts it, his death in July 1960 was followed by “an outpouring of national mourning”. The Daily Herald reported that MPs wept in the Commons and that in the South Wales valleys there was “sorrow at every street corner”. More remarkable was the reaction of the Daily Express. “Farewell, bright spirit,” it wrote, “. . . unmanageable, incalculable, adored – and hated.” At the beginning of this month the actor Michael Sheen gave a speech in Tredegar in which he called Bevan a “mythical creature . . . He had cast-iron integrity and a raging passion.”

Yet in a parliamentary career of just over 30 years, Bevan held ministerial office for only six. True, he had shown a rare capacity for statesmanship and negotiation. He had been the youngest member of the postwar Attlee cabinet, the greatest reforming cabinet since Asquith’s before the First World War. In this capacity, he had masterminded the creation of the National Health Service, the most far-reaching extension of social citizenship in British history. Health care ceased to be a commodity and became a public good, fenced off from market forces: an island of solidarity where strangers were bound together by common needs and equal treatment, and where the cash nexus had been abolished. As the social theorist Richard Titmuss later described it, the NHS was the product of the “most unsordid act of British social policy in the 20th century”.

But unsordid did not mean uncontroversial. The NHS quickly became the best-loved public institution in the land: the American political scientist Harry Eckstein said it was “almost a part of the constitution”. Despite incessant marketisation and partial privatisation, it still is – if only just. But Bevan had to fight a long battle with the British Medical Association, whose secretary was the future Conservative housing minister Charles Hill, before the act could come into force. He was willing to compromise on inessentials. He famously allowed hospital consultants to keep their lucrative pay beds – stuffing their mouths with gold, as he put it. On the central points, however, he displayed a formidable combination of unyielding will, grasp of detail and, above all, a profound moral commitment that reflected the instinctive communalism of the South Wales valleys.

These traits were buttressed by a mixture of charm, wit and intellectual breadth that disarmed the leaders of the Royal Colleges. When the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists declared that the matters at stake were of great importance to him because he was “responsible for all the pregnant women in the country”, Bevan grinned and retorted: “You’re boasting!” Lord Moran (“Corkscrew Charlie”), Churchill’s doctor and the president of the Royal College of Physicians from 1941 to 1950, saw Bevan as “a rare phenomenon. Always ready for new mental adventures.”

Altogether it was a virtuoso performance. The tragedy – and it is our tragedy as well as Bevan’s – is that it stands alone. His health service victory was followed by a time in which he floundered hopelessly, like a beached whale. With astonishing insensitivity, Attlee denied him the preferment he deserved. When the mortally ill Stafford Cripps resigned as chancellor in 1950 the post went to Hugh Gaitskell, who had been in parliament for only five years as against Bevan’s 21. When Bevin left the Foreign Office a few months later, Attlee replaced him with Morrison, a Bevan bête noire since the 1930s. As a consolation prize, Bevan became minister of labour, but that was a sideways move at best.

Against that background, the cabinet and party slithered into a crisis that tore the Labour movement apart. The proximate cause was an essentially trivial dispute over health expenditure. With characteristic rigidity Gaitskell insisted that health spending had to be contained and that the only way to contain it was to impose charges on spectacles and dentures. The prospective saving was risible: £13m (or £23m in a full year) out of a £4bn budget. But that was not the point. Gaitskell knew that Bevan was bound to resist, and he was determined to impose his will on his most recalcitrant colleague, who was also his most formidable rival for party power. Bevan’s tortured attempts to find a compromise were contemptuously dismissed. He had to submit or resign.

He duly resigned; the Labour Party suffered its most damaging split since 1931; and the Conservatives won 13 years of power. The fracture was not just about rivalry – on a deeper level it was also about Britain’s role in a world hag-ridden by the cold war and about the proper response to the taming of capitalism which had taken place right across the western world in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Like Ernest Bevin, whom he abominated, and George Orwell, who was one of his contributors during his wartime editorship of Tribune, Bevan was a tough-minded social patriot. He had no qualms about the Attlee government’s decision to develop nuclear weapons. During the Soviet blockade of Berlin he was for sending tanks into the Soviet zone to back up the western airlift. He supported the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty and the creation of Nato. In an electrifying party conference speech in Brighton in October 1957, he denounced the left’s call for unilateral nuclear disarmament as “an emotional spasm” that would send a Labour foreign secretary “naked into the conference chamber”.

Yet unlike Gaitskell he was not an Atlanticist; and unlike the unlovely trade-union leaders who became Gaitskell’s praetorian guard he was not an instinctive cold warrior. A formative influence on Bevan was the Uruguayan thinker José Enrique Rodó, whose writings had inspired him as a young man. Rodó’s denunciation of the soulless utilitarianism of American culture left an indelible impression on Bevan’s world-view; according to Thomas-Symonds, he was particularly impressed by Rodó’s contempt for the “insufficiency and emptiness” of American civilisation. A decade earlier, Bevin had insisted that Britain needed to have an independent nuclear deterrent with “the bloody Union Jack on top of it” in order to be able to stand up to the Americans. Britain was still a great power and it should remain so. In all this, Bevan, born in the year of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, was of his time.

But, as Thomas-Symonds shows, he also looked forward to ours. The conventional wisdom of the 1950s held that Marx had been proved wrong, that the capitalist leopard had changed its spots, that ideological conflict was passé, that Keynesian economic management was here to stay and that the gross inequalities of the pre-war years were gone for ever. Anthony Crosland, the Labour revisionists’ theorist-in-chief, held that capitalism had changed so fundamentally that it was a moot point whether it still deserved the name; socialists should stop worrying about the state of the economy and focus instead on quality of life. The American sociologist Daniel Bell argued that there was now a consensus throughout the western world in favour of the welfare state and a mixed economy.

Bevan begged to differ. Rodó-like, he insisted that the so-called affluent society of the late 1950s was vulgar and meretricious, a “society in which priorities have gone all wrong”. In his early days in local politics he had thought, as Thomas-Symonds puts it, that “the state was an instrument of the propertied classes” and that “government was stacked in their favour”. He still thought so in the 1950s: it was because private property rights had not been curbed that priorities had gone wrong.

The untamed capitalism of today, with its ever-diminishing public realm, its hubristic and sometimes criminal financial sector, its yawning gap between the super-rich and the rest, its remorseless growth of inequality, its pathological money worship and its debasing celebrity culture, would astonish Crosland, but it would seem all too familiar to Marx – and also to Bevan and, for that matter, Rodó. Bevan did not tell us how to tame it again but, albeit in a confused and uncertain way, he did warn us that the logic of the times pointed towards it. None of his contemporaries could say the same.

David Marquand’s “Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now” is published in paperback by Penguin

This article appears in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War