This week we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of a major figure in the history of the Labour Party and the welfare state.
Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan was a radical Welsh Labour politician active in national politics from the late 1920s until his death. He was first elected to Parliament in 1929 for the constituency of Ebbw Vale after being active in local and trade union politics in South Wales. He is chiefly remembered for his role in the setting up of the NHS in 1948 when he was a Minister in Clement Attlee’s post war Labour Government.
Nye Bevan was born in Tredegar South Wales, part of a mining community. His father was a miner and he was one of ten children (only six survived to adulthood) Nye himself left school at 13 and went to work down the pit with his father and elder brother.
He began attending meetings of the local Plebs’ League (an educational and political organisation) where he studied, among other things, Marxism. Nye also joined the Tredegar branch of the South Wales Miners’ Federation and became a trade union activist. He was head of his local Miners’ Lodge at only nineteen years of age and was frequently critical of management. In 1919 he was unsuccessful in standing in the Tredegar Urban district elections but he then won a scholarship to the Central Labour College in London where he studied economics politics and history for two years. It was during this time of early political involvement that he began to overcome the stammer he had had since childhood and developed into a great public speaker.
On returning home he remained unemployed as the local coal company refused to re employ him. Eventually he found fulltime employment as a union official in 1924. He was a leading figure for the South Wales miners during the 1926 General Strike and was largely responsible for the distribution of strike pay in Tredegar and the formation of the Council of Action, an organisation that helped to raise money and provided food for the miners.
It was then, with his appearance at conferences of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, that his reputation as an effective organiser and strategist as well as a firebrand activist and agitator found a national stage.
When he was elected to Parliament in 1929 he quickly established a reputation as being fiercely opposed to those who did not stand up for working men and women. At the time the press noted
‘There are about fifty miners’ Members in the new Parliament, but I do not think Mr Aneurin Bevan will be exactly lost in the crowd. He has a reputation for exceptional platform ability.’
Nye had developed a distinctive oratorical style which had an immediate impact in the Commons.
In 1934 he married Jennie Lee, another Labour MP and also very much on the left wing of the party. Generally they were in tune with each other’s views but they did have political differences of opinion for example about Nye’s support of Britain developing a nuclear deterrent. Lee was eventually Minister for the Arts in Harold Wilson’s cabinet and was instrumental in the founding of the Open University and went on to become Baroness Lee of Asheridge. She died in 1988.
Nye’s first ten years as an MP were turbulent. He was a memorable parliamentary performer, continually championing the cause of the poor and unemployed, but he came into conflict with both the parliamentary authorities and with his own party. In April 1937 he was suspended from the house ‘for disregarding the authority of the chair’ during a crucial debate on the so-called ‘Special Areas’ of social deprivation. In March 1939 he was briefly expelled from the Labour Party for his constant opposition to the policy of non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Having given a formal undertaking to toe the line, he was reinstated in December the same year, by which time the Second World War had begun.
At the start of the war he was antagonistic towards PM Neville Chamberlain and supported the move to replace him with Winston Churchill, despite them not often seeing eye to eye. Nye referred to Churchill as a man suffering from ‘petrified adolescence‘ and Churchill called Nye ‘a squalid nuisance’. Generally he was critical of the policies of Churchill’s wartime administration but he saved his greatest criticism for his own Party which he believed had betrayed the socialist values at the heart of the Labour movement.
Nye Bevan believed that the War would eventually give Britain the chance to create a new society. He quoted Karl Marx who had said in 1885: “The redeeming feature of war is that it puts a nation to the test. As exposure to the atmosphere reduces all mummies to instant dissolution, so war passes supreme judgment upon social systems that have outlived their vitality.” At the start of the postwar 1945 General Election campaign Nye said: “We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders. We enter this campaign at this general election, not merely to get rid of the Tory majority. We want the complete political extinction of the Tory Party.”
After the Labour election victory in 1945 Clement Attlee appointed Nye as Minister for Housing and Health. Labour had the majority it needed to push through its welfare state plans, despite constant attacks from the Conservatives. In 1946 the National Insurance Act was passed, putting in place the structure of a universal state health system (implementing William Beveridge’s Report) and pensions and unemployment, sickness, maternity and widows’ benefits, all funded by compulsory contributions from employer and employee.
We associate Nye Bevan chiefly with the setting up of the NHS. However he was also responsible for implementing a national housing programme following the destruction caused by the war. The regeneration of housing was made difficult by the continued existence of slums, and a shortage of skilled labour and materials. Nevertheless the building programme achieved 850,000 houses in the four years after the end of the war, an astonishing achievement compared to the rate of housebuilding we see today. He argued for high quality housing and understood, from his own background in South Wales, the link between housing and health.
Nye’s greatest achievement though was his creation, despite opposition from Tories and the medical profession, of the NHS, which came into being on July 5 1948. For the first time people in Britain were provided with a service, free at the point of need, with free diagnosis and treatment of illness, at home or in hospital, as well as dental and ophthalmic services. As Minister of Health, Nye was in charge of 2,688 hospitals in England and Wales.
It was the decision to nationalise the hospitals that made the profound difference in the structural change brought about by the creation of the NHS. This decision was Nye Bevan’s and its implementation was down to his skill, patience, and application as a minister. It is the most significant and lasting reform in the history of the Labour party and it was achieved by one man. The existence of the NHS is testament to Nye’s ability and vision as a minister.
He famously said, “Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community’.
Nye was downgraded, despite his successes, to Minister for Labour in 1951. He soon resigned from the cabinet in protest at Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell’s introduction of prescription charges for dental care and glasses in order to meet the financial demands imposed on the budget by the Korean War. On returning to the backbenches he led the left wing group of the Labour Party, the so called Bevanites.
The Tories won the General Election in October 1951 and remained in power until 1964 so Nye never again had the chance to serve in a Cabinet implementing policy.
He stood to be Leader of the Labour Party in 1955 but was defeated by Hugh Gaitskell. This put the Bevanite wing of Labour firmly in its place. Despite this, in 1956 he was appointed as Shadow Colonial Secretary then Shadow Foreign Secretary by Gaitskell. He was elected Deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1959 and continued to speak about his views and gave a barnstorming speech at the Party conference in 1959. This proved to be his last public speech as he became ill with stomach cancer. He died in July 1960.
There was genuine mourning for Nye and an acknowledgment of his achievements. Even the Daily Mail was generous in its tribute:
‘‘The overwhelming impression is of a man of size, a man whose intellect was capacious, lively, and illuminating, a man whose emotions were strong and human, a man who believed greatly in his country and believed also, which is rare these days, in the power of ideas, a man who strove to retain the predominance of politics over economics or mass-psychology. For this, in the end, is what we owe to politicians like him. A democracy cannot survive healthily without the example of individual leaders who dare all as individuals and leave, long after their failures are forgotten, the imprint of a great human being.’
Now, 71 years after its creation, the National Health Service’s founding principles remain intact. It continues to be funded from general taxation and is free at the point of use. However, its principles are under attack. Nye Bevan said ‘The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with faith to fight for it’.
The fight is underway.
Nye Bevan website