I cannot claim to have known Aneurin Bevan, though I met him once and must have heard him speak a dozen times, including his great Trafalgar Square speech during the Suez War, and his final Labour Party conference speech after the 1959 election defeat. He was the hero of my younger years, and I eagerly consumed the two volumes of Michael Foot’s biography, published in 1962 and 1973. Looking back, these erred too much on the hagiographic side, but I’m sure that they would still be well worth reading today. Since then, there have been two or three attempts to write rather shorter works, but none of them succeeded in capturing the sheer electricity of his personality nor doing justice to his achievements.
Now Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, who published an excellent short biography of Clem Attlee in 2012, has excelled himself by producing Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan. It is a well-balanced and thoroughly researched account of Bevan’s life and career, from his beginnings in the South Wales coalfields to his belated election as deputy leader of the Labour party in 1959 and his premature death from cancer the following year. Thomas-Symonds comes from a similar South Wales mining background, but whereas Bevan went down the pits at the age of 13, he proceeded, at 18, to Oxford, where he now teaches part-time at St. Edmund Hall, while practising as a barrister in Cardiff, and serving as secretary of the Torfaen constituency Labour party.
Bevan was one of 10 children, only six of whom survived to adulthood, while his father died in early middle age of pneumoconiosis. He had a very distinctive stammer, perhaps provoked by the headmaster of his elementary school, a notorious bully who regularly vented his spleen on the young Nye. He never lost it completely, but largely cured himself by climbing the local hills and declaiming long passages from Shakespeare towards the valleys below.
Remaining underground for nine years, Bevan spending his spare time educating himself, and plunging into trade union and Labour Party activities. He helped to organise the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, a self-help body, which provided free medical attention for its members “at the point of delivery”, a principle which Bevan never forgot and embedded into the National Health Service nearly 30 years later.
In 1919, aged 22, his years underground came to an end, when he won a miners’ scholarship to the Central Labour College in London. He returned to Tredegar within two years, was elected to the Town Council and Monmouthshire County Council, and in 1929, a rare (for the time) deselection took place, when the MP for Ebbw Vale was dropped by the local party, and Bevan triumphed in the subsequent selection conference. The runner-up, Bryn Roberts, went on to have a distinguished union career, becoming general secretary of NUPE at the age of 36. Bevan later commented that “our roles could quite easily have been reversed”. Instead, he was elected in the 1929 general election, and held the seat without any difficultly until his death in 1960.
Bevan soon made his mark in the House as an articulate firebrand, and during the second world war constituted himself as a one-man opposition to Churchill (and also to deputy premier Clem Attlee), whom he mercilessly criticised.
After this, he was probably surprised to be included in Attlee’s cabinet after the 1945 election victory. Delving through Attlee’s papers, Thomas-Symonds discovered that his original intention was to appoint Bevan to Education and Ellen Wilkinson to Health, but later changed his mind. No doubt Wilkinson would also have been able to inaugurate a National Health Service, but several of its distinctive features would probably have been different. Thomas-Symonds gives high marks to Bevan for his term as health minister, but rather less for the housing portfolio which he also held. He is full of admiration for the way he conducted complex negotiations with the doctors’ representatives, making it very clear that it involved much more than merely “stuffing their mouths with gold”, in Bevan’s own words.
Three years later, the success of the NHS was universally recognised, and Nye’s reputation and popularity within the party soared. The government, whose majority had been reduced to five seats (largely due to redistribution) in the 1950 general election suffered two body blows in early 1951, with the illness and death of both the chancellor, Stafford Cripps and foreign secretary Ernest Bevin.
Bevan was overlooked for both vacancies, and even for the post of colonial secretary, which he would gladly have taken. Instead, he reluctantly accepted a sideways move to the Ministry of Labour. Three months later, after the new chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell, had presented a budget which included NHS charges and a ruinously expensive provision for rearmament following the outbreak of the Korean War, he resigned, alongside Harold Wilson and John Freeman. Had Bevan been promoted to one of these posts it seems rather unlikely he would have taken this step.
Attlee had perfectly respectable reasons for making the choices he did – Morrison had been a great success as manager of the government’s legislative programme, and it was not clear (though it fairly soon was) that he was already ‘past it’, while Gaitskell had been an able deputy to Cripps. But Clem subsequently claimed, in a television interview with Francis Williams, that he had always expected that Nye would be his successor, and that was what he wanted. If that was indeed the case, he had a funny way of showing it!
If Attlee was to blame for Bevan’s resignation, and effectively for Labour’s narrow defeat in the 1951 general election, he only had himself to blame for his subsequent difficulties. His impulsive actions, including a pointless resignation from the shadow cabinet in 1954, alienated a large swathe of Labour MPs, and meant he had no realistic chance of being chosen to succeed Clem in December 1955. From 1957 onwards, he gradually worked his way back to favour, and had he survived he might well have succeeded Gaitskell and led Labour into the 1964 election.
All these events are ably recounted by Thomas-Symonds. He unhesitatingly asserts that Nye was a great man. But he writes dispassionately of his faults and misjudgements, and has succeeded in producing the most rounded portrait yet attempted of Labour’s ‘lost leader’.
Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds’s book Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan is available from I.B. Tauris (£30).