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Known as Nye Bevan
Born 1897 Died 1960
Trade Union leader and politician

Early Life

He was born in Tredegar, Monmouthshire on 15th November 1897 into a Welsh Noncomformist family. Bevan left school at the age of thirteen and followed his father into the mines, gaining employment at the local Tytryst Colliery. He inherited his father's socialist principles as well and in his teens joined the Independent Labour Party and became active within the South Wales Miners' Federation becoming the chairman of his local lodge at the age of nineteen.

Despite his curtailed education he developed a love of reading and became self-educated and in 1919 won a scholarship to study at the Central Labour College in London. There he studied economics, politics and history and came a convert to Marxism.

On returning to Tredegar after two years in London, his reputation for radicalism and union activism made it difficult for him to find employment (the coal industry was under private ownership at the time) and perhaps inevitably he ended up employed as a union official. In 1926 with the outbreak of the General Strike and the longer Miners' Strike he emerged as one of the leaders of the South Wales minerworkers.

In 1928 Bevan made his first move into politics and was elected to the Monmouthshire County Council. The next year he was selected to fight the Ebbw Vale on behalf of the Labour Party, a seat which he duly won in the election of that year.

Into Politics

No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred of the Tory party. So far as I am concerned, they are lower than vermin

Which basically sums up Nye's basic political philosophy; he was a committed Marxist socialist, a faith he retained throughout his life, the darling of the Labour Left and the favourite hate figure of the Conservative Right.

His maiden speech to the House of Commons was a blistering attack on Winston Churchill, (who had helped organise the government's response to the 1926 General Strike and was not therefore on Nye Bevan's Christmas card list.) and he was similarly ill-disposed towards Ramsay MacDonald and his National Government regarding the whole idea of National Labour as a betrayal of socialist principles.

The mood of British politics in the thirties was not however, very favourable to Marxist socialism and apart from thundering against the government Bevan busied himself with extra-parliamentary activities. In 1936 he was instrumental in setting up the socialist Tribune newspaper and became a member of the board that ran the paper; he was also a keen advocate of the concept of the Popular Front 1 which pursued with such enthusiasm that he was briefly expelled from the Labour Party in 1939, before being re-admitted after promising not to campaign against party policy in future.

The Minister of Disease

Despite his earlier animosity he also became an advocate of Neville Chamberlain's replacement by Winston Churchill as prime minister but was genuinely shocked when Churchill retained the services of both arch-appeasers, Chamberlain and Lord Halifax in his war-time cabinet.

Bevan became the foremost parliamentary critic of Churchill, which annoyed Churchill immensely who branded him the 'Minister of Disease'. He became almost a one man opposition party as few others, at the time, had the sheer audacity to challenge Churchill.

The Creation of the National Health Service

Bevan correctly anticipated that the experience of World War II had profoundly changed the attitudes of the British electorate and was therefore not surprised with the sweeping victory of the Labour Party in the general election of 1945 2. Clement Attlee became the new Labour Prime Minister, and he appointed Bevan as Minister of Health, giving him the job of steering the necessary legislation through parliament to fulfill the Party's pledge of creating a National Health Service.

There was a great deal of opposition to the idea from the medical establishment, one distinguished doctor described the National Health Service as the first step, and a big one, to national socialism as practised in Germany and the vast majority of doctors were fundamentally opposed fearing it would undermine their professional independence.

Bevan, whilst publicly attacking his opponents and describing the BMA at one time as a "small body of politically poisoned people", used his considerable reserves of charm to win the medical profession around and eventually achieved the acquiescence of the consultants by, as he put it, "stuffing their mouths with gold." 3 He was singularly successful and when the National Health Service came into existence on the 5th of July 1948 over 90% of doctors signed up for the new service with little protest.

With the creation of the National Health Service he became the minister responsible for running the 1,143 voluntary hospitals and 1545 municipal hospitals previously run by voluntary bodies and Local Authorities together with a whole national network of family doctors that became known as General Practitioners.

In 1951 he briefly switched roles and became Minister of Labour but resigned from the government when the Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Gaitskell announced the introduction of charges for dental treatment and prescriptions. As far as Nye was concerned the idea that the National Health Service was supposed to be free was a matter of principle, the government had betrayed that principle, and so he resigned.

In Opposition

The Labour Party lost the election of 1951, so the rest of the Cabinet followed Bevan out of government. Bevan carried on in normal fashion, thundering against the iniquities and evils of a Conservative government. He quitened down a little in 1956 he agreed to serve the new leader, Hugh Gaitskell, as shadow foreign secretary.

At the Labour Party Conference of 1957 he revealed his opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament, a position which shocked the Labour Left but demonstrated that he always made his own mind on issues and never followed convention. He argued against the conference resolution advocating unilateralism with the famous words;

But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications and do not run away from it you will send a Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber.

Sadly his health deteriorated in the late fifties and despite becoming deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1959, was soon very ill as a result of the cancer that finally claimed his life on 6th July, 1960. He married a fellow left-wing Labour MP Jennie Lee in 1934 who survived him.

His Achievements

Nye Bevan is remembered as being the architect of the National Health Service, although the idea was not his, it was his conception that was implemented, in particular the idea that all hospitals be bought under state control. It took a great force of will to achieve what was in effect a wholescale nationalisation of the entire medical service in the face of widespread opposition (including some from within the party who thought he was going too far. Despite the white hot heat of technological revolution, despite hospital trusts the internal market, Thatcherism, Blairism and everything else, the dear old NHS remains with us (Well us Brits anyway.), a sacred cow of British politics, and for better or worse a seemingly eternal feature of the national landscape.

It does also tend to get forgotten that Bevan was also responsible for government's post war house building programme that succeeded in delivering over one million new homes. Something of an achievement in the post-war world when everything was in short supply; many of these homes are also still standing, which is more than can be said for much of what was built by his Labour successors in the sixties.

He had a quick and ready turn of phrase that made him one of the great parliamentarians of the 20th century, in a pre-television age when the House of Commons has real debates and oratory still counted for something.

His most famous aphorism is still trotted out today, as a stinging rebuke to all those that favour the 'middle way' in politics;

We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.


Dedicated to ascorbic who asked me to rescue my namesake from his poor state.


NOTES

1 The idea that all left-wing parties should unite to combat the threat of fascism.

2 Unlike Churchill to whom defeat was a profound shock and surprise.

3 That is agreeing to the retention of pay-beds within National Health Service hospitals and permitting consultants to continue their peivate practices alongside their National Health Service duties.


SOURCES

In no particular order;

  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/events/nhs_at_50/special_report/119803.stm
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/monarchs_leaders/bevan.shtml
  • www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUbevan.htm
  • www.cix.co.uk/~cjr/pol/labhist/nb.htm

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