Category: Labour History
My article from the new issue of Labour Briefing
When Labour had an identity
NYE: THE POLITICAL LIFE OF ANEURIN BEVAN
By Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds (IB Tauris, 2015), 316 pp. ISBN 9 781780 762098
Towards the end of Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds new biography, we see Nye reflecting on the 1959 election defeat. His last Conference speech affirmed that the future belonged to Labour, a view none of today’s leadership candidates can confidently hold. The author, newly-elected MP for Torfaen, will have plenty of time in Opposition benches to reflect on these two polls, one from the dawn of consumerism, the other after years of austerity.
Outside Wales, Bevan is remembered only as founder of the NHS (not a bad monument!). His several biographers (including Michael Foot) diverge widely in their assessment. This dynamic man began as a miner but ambition and conviction speedily propelled him into local government and (aged just 32) into Parliament. For 30 years he was unmatched in combining authority in the House with compelling extra-parliamentary advocacy.
Bevan and Benn
Among modern Labour politicians only Tony Benn – from a very different background – excelled in both. Each was a man of power, though Benn had 11 years in Cabinet to Bevan’s six. Of the great socialist orators we cannot hear Hardie, MacLean or the young MacDonald. Bevan’s conference speeches and rally orations survive, most memorably his savage destruction of Eden’s reputation during the Suez fiasco.
These two contrasting individuals had something else in common. They should both have become leaders of their party. But Labour, conservative to its roots, fears brilliance. Each of them, just by being there, provoked a coalition of mediocre bullies – many of them second-rate union leaders – to block their path. This fear of charisma doomed Labour to a succession of Gaitskells and Kinnocks, leaders quite unable to assemble winning majorities.
Ideologically Bevan was firmly on the Left. Nationalising the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy was a central conviction; his final illness removed him from the scene just as the dogmatic Gaitskell launched his attempt to delete Clause IV of the party’s then constitution. It is inconceivable that he would have joined in though Thomas-Symonds, who can seem uncomfortable with this, points out that he was a critic of ‘Morrisonian’ state corporations. Contrast his view of nuclear weapons. Though not a party to Attlee’s secret decision to build a ‘British’ bomb he saw them as sustaining British socialist influence in the world. One of the most moving passages of Foot’s book describes how Bevan turned devastatingly on the unilateralists – his own closest political friends – at the 1957 conference. Thomas-Symonds is more neutral.
This same mercurial figure was a well-known bon viveur with friends on the Right, a powerful journalist (though author only of one book, In Place of Fear), and unafraid to take Beaverbrook’s coin. He was briefly expelled from the Party for advocating a popular front and attempts were again made to get rid of him for factionalism in the 1950s. (In fact he was an incorrigible individualist; his failure to organise against a brutal Right demoralised his friends and the wider Left.) He was a serious internationalist, committed to freedom for the colonies even if it meant opposing his own party. Had he lived – he died as Deputy Leader – he might well have succeeded Gaitskell after the latter’s death in 1963 and led Labour to victory the following year (though Thomas-Symonds fairly observes that Harold Wilson might already have been better-placed to succeed).
But the NHS was his great achievement, and if we don’t get the passion with which he drove it through the parliamentary process we do get the pragmatism that finally allowed him to bring it off. What a colossal achievement it was to bring together the various health providers under one umbrella without compromising the basic principles the whole Attlee government was determined to incorporate. Facing appalling opposition from the BMA (which happily sees the world differently these days) he stuck to his last: it was a great triumph of political will. No Briton under 70 is not in his debt.
The editors might have helped the author, cutting out repetitions here and there. This Bevan is not the familiar one from newsreels or Michael Foot’s flawed romantic hero, but a pragmatic – even a diminished – Bevan. Certainly he was not the ‘intransigent ideologue’ of legend, but any observer, friendly or hostile, of Bevan’s career could only conclude that he was driven by conviction. Thirty years on, a party desperate for office traded its beliefs for office. It has just paid a heavy price. What withering scorn Nye would have hurled at it.
This is an edited version of a review that will appear in the June 2015 number of Labour Briefing.