Aneurin Bevan, usually known as Nye Bevan was born on 15 November 1897 in Tredegar, Monmouthshire, in the South Wales Valleys and on the northern edge of the South Wales coalfield and died on 6 July 1960. Aneurin Bevan was a Welsh Labour politician. Aneurin Bevan was a key figure on the left of the party in the mid-20th century and was the Minister of Health responsible for the formation of the National Health Service.
Aneurin Bevan was the son of miner David Bevan. Both Aneurin Bevan’s parents were Nonconformists; his father was a Baptist and his mother a Methodist. 1 of 10 children, Aneurin Bevan did poorly at school and his academic performance was so bad that his headmaster made him repeat a year. At the age of 13, Aneurin Bevan left school and began working in the local Tytryst Colliery. David Bevan had been a supporter of the Liberal Party in his youth, but was converted to socialism by the writings of Robert Blatchford in the Clarion and joined the Independent Labour Party.
David Bevan’s son 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 19. Aneurin Bevan became a well-known local orator and was seen by his employers, the Tredegar Iron & Coal Company, as a revolutionary. The manager of the colliery found an excuse to get him sacked. But, with the support of the Miners’ Federation, the case was judged as one of victimisation and the company was forced to re-employ him.
In 1919, he won a scholarship to the Central Labour College in London, sponsored by the South Wales Miners’ Federation. At the college he gained his life-long respect for Karl Marx. Reciting long passages by William Morris, Aneurin Bevan gradually began to overcome the stammer that he had since he was a child.
Upon returning home in 1921, he found that the Tredegar Iron & Coal Company refused to re-hire him. Aneurin Bevan did not find work until 1924 in the Bedwellty Colliery, and it closed down after 10 months. Aneurin Bevan had to endure another year of unemployment and in February 1925, his father died of pneumoconiosis.
In 1926, he found work again, this time as a paid union official. Aneurin Bevan’s wage of £5 a week was paid by the members of the local Miners’ Lodge. Aneurin Bevan’s new job arrived in time for him to head the local miners against the colliery companies in what would become the General Strike. When the strike started on 3 May, 1926, Aneurin Bevan soon emerged as one of the leaders of the South Wales miners. The miners remained on strike for 6 months. Aneurin Bevan 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.
Aneurin Bevan was a member of the Cottage Hospital Management Committee around 1928 and was chairman in 1929/30.
In 1928, Aneurin Bevan won a seat on Monmouthshire County Council. With that success he was picked as the Labour Party candidate for Ebbw Vale (displacing the sitting MP), and easily held the seat at the 1929 General Election. In Parliament he soon became noticed as a harsh critic of those he felt opposed the working man. Aneurin Bevan’s targets included the Conservative Winston Churchill and the Liberal Lloyd George, as well as Ramsay MacDonald and Margaret Bondfield from his own Labour party (he targeted the latter for her unwillingness to increase unemployment benefits). Aneurin Bevan had solid support from his constituency, being one of the few Labour MPs to be unopposed in the 1931 General Election.
Soon after he entered parliament Aneurin Bevan was briefly attracted to Oswald Mosley’s arguments, in the context of Ramsay Macdonald’s government’s incompetent handling of rising unemployment. However, in the words of his biographer John Campbell, “he breached with Oswald Mosley as soon as Oswald Mosley breached with the Labour Party”. This is symptomatic of his lifelong commitment to the Labour Party, which was a result of his firm belief that only a Party supported by the British Labour Movement could have a realistic chance of attaining political power for the working class. Thus, for Aneurin Bevan, joining Oswald Mosley’s New Party was not an option. Aneurin Bevan is said to have predicted that Oswald Mosley would end up as a Fascist.
Aneurin Bevan married fellow socialist MP Jennie Lee in 1934. Aneurin Bevan was an early supporter of the socialists in Spain and visited the country in the 1930s. In 1936 he joined the board of the new socialist newspaper the Tribune. Aneurin Bevan’s agitations for a united socialist front of all parties of the left (including the Communist Party of Great Britain) led to his brief expulsion from the Labour Party in March to November 1939 (along with Stafford Cripps and C.P. Trevelyan). But, he was readmitted in November 1939 after agreeing “to refrain from conducting or taking part in campaigns in opposition to the declared policy of the Party.”
Aneurin Bevan was a strong critic of the policies of Neville Chamberlain, arguing that his old enemy Winston Churchill should be given power. During the war he was one of the main leaders of the left in the Commons, opposing the wartime Coalition government. Aneurin Bevan opposed the heavy censorship imposed on radio and newspapers and wartime Defence Regulation 18B, which gave the Home Secretary the powers to intern citizens without trial. Aneurin Bevan called for the nationalisation of the coal industry and advocated the opening of a 2nd Front in Western Europe in order to help the Soviet Union in its fight with Germany. Winston Churchill responded by calling Aneurin Bevan “… a squalid nuisance”.
Aneurin Bevan believed that the 2nd World War would give Britain the opportunity to create “a new society”. Aneurin Bevan often quoted an 1855 passage from Karl Marx: “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 beginning of the 1945 general election campaign Aneurin Bevan told his audience: “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 World War II, when the Communists took control of China. Parliament debated the merits of recognizing the Communist government. Winston Churchill, no friend of Aneurin Bevan or Mao Zedong, commented that recognition would be advantageous to the United Kingdom for various reasons and added, “Just because you recognize someone does not mean you like him. We all, for example, recognize the Right Honourable Member from Ebbw Vale.”
The 1945 General Election proved to be a landslide victory for the Labour Party, giving it a large enough majority to allow the implementation of the party’s manifesto commitments and to introduce a programme of far-reaching social reforms that were collectively dubbed the ‘Welfare State’. The new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, appointed Aneurin Bevan as Minister of Health, with a remit that also covered Housing. Thus, the responsibility for instituting a new and comprehensive National Health Service, as well as tackling the country’s severe post-war housing shortage, fell to the youngest member of Clement Attlee’s Cabinet in his first ministerial position. The free health service was paid for directly through government income, with no fees paid at the point of delivery. Government income was increased for the Welfare state expenditure by a severe increase in marginal tax rates for wealthy business owners in particular, as part of what the Labour government largely saw as the redistribution of the wealth created by the working class from the owners of large-scale industry to the workers.
On the “appointed day”, 5 July 1948, having overcome political opposition from both the Conservative Party and from within his own party, and after a dramatic showdown with the British Medical Association, which had threatened to derail the National Health Service scheme before it had even begun, as medical practitioners continued to withhold their support just months before the launch of the service, Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Service Act of 1946 came into force. After 18 months of ongoing dispute between the Ministry of Health and the BMA, Aneurin Bevan finally managed to win over the support of the vast majority of the medical profession by offering a couple of minor concessions, but without compromising on the fundamental principles of his NHS proposals. Aneurin Bevan later gave the famous quote that, in order for the broker to the deal, he had “stuffed their mouths with gold”. Some 2,688 voluntary and municipal hospitals in England and Wales were nationalised and came under Aneurin Bevan’s supervisory control as Health Minister.
Substantial bombing damage and the continued existence of pre-war slums in many parts of the country made the task of housing reform particularly challenging for Aneurin Bevan. Indeed, these factors, exacerbated by post-war restrictions on the availability of building materials and skilled labour, collectively served to limit Aneurin Bevan’s achievements in this area. 1946 saw the completion of 55,600 new homes; this rose to 139,600 in 1947, and 227,600 in 1948. While this was not an insignificant achievement, Aneurin Bevan’s rate of housebuilding was seen as less of an achievement than that of his Conservative (indirect) successor, Harold Macmillan, who was able to complete some 300,000 a year as Minister for Housing in the 1950s. Harold Macmillan was able to concentrate full-time on Housing, instead of being obliged, like Aneurin Bevan, to combine his housing portfolio with that for Health (which for Aneurin Bevan took the higher priority). However critics said that the cheaper housing built by Harold Macmillan was exactly the poor standard of housing that Aneurin Bevan was aiming to replace. Harold Macmillan’s policies led to the building of cheap, mass-production high-rise tower blocks, which have been heavily criticised since.
Aneurin Bevan was appointed Minister of Labour in 1951 but soon resigned in protest at Hugh Gaitskell’s introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles — created in order to meet the financial demands imposed by the Korean War. 2 other Ministers, John Freeman and Harold Wilson resigned at the same time.
In 1952 Aneurin Bevan published In Place of Fear, “the most widely read socialist book” of the period, according to a highly critical right-wing Labour MP Anthony Crosland. Aneurin Bevan begins: “A young miner in a South Wales colliery, my concern was with the one practical question: Where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers?” In 1954, Hugh Gaitskell beat Aneurin Bevan in a hard fought contest to be the Treasurer of the Labour Party.
Out of the Cabinet, Aneurin Bevan soon initiated a split within the Labour Party between the right and the left. For the next 5 years, Aneurin Bevan was the leader of the left-wing of the Labour Party, who became known as Bevanites. They criticised high defence expenditure (especially for nuclear weapons) and opposed the more reformist stance of Clement Attlee. When the 1st British hydrogen bomb was exploded in 1955, Aneurin Bevan led a revolt of 57 Labour MPs and abstained on a key vote. The Parliamentary Labour Party voted 141 to 113 to withdraw the whip from him, but it was restored within a month due to his popularity.
After the 1955 general election, Clement Attlee retired as leader. Aneurin Bevan contested the leadership against both Morrison and Labour right-winger Hugh Gaitskell but it was Hugh Gaitskell who emerged victorious. Aneurin Bevan’s remark that “I know the right kind of political Leader for the Labour Party is a kind of desiccated calculating machine” was assumed to refer to Hugh Gaitskell, although Aneurin Bevan denied it (commenting upon Hugh Gaitskell’s record as Chancellor of the Exchequer as having “proved” this). However, Hugh Gaitskell was prepared to make Aneurin Bevan Shadow Colonial Secretary, and then Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1956. In this position, he was a vocal critic of the government’s actions in the Suez Crisis, noticeably delivering high profile speeches in Trafalgar Square on 4 November 1956 at a protest rally, and devastating the government’s actions and arguments in the House of Commons on 5 December 1956. That year, he was finally elected as party treasurer, beating George Brown.
Aneurin Bevan dismayed many of his supporters when, speaking at the 1957 Labour Party conference, he decried unilateral nuclear disarmament, saying “It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber”. This statement is often misconstrued. Aneurin Bevan argued that unilateralism would result in Britain’s loss of allies. One interpretation of Aneurin Bevan’s metaphor is that the nakedness comes from the lack of allies, not the lack of weapons. According to the journalist Paul Routledge, Donald Bruce, a former MP and Parliamentary Private Secretary and adviser to Aneurin Bevan, had told him that Aneurin Bevan’s shift on the disarmament issue was the result of discussions with the Soviet government where they advised him to push for British retention of nuclear weapons so they could possibly be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States. It should be noted that the UK was the only country apart from the superpowers of the USA and USSR to possess nuclear weapons at the time.
In 1959 despite suffering from terminal cancer, Aneurin Bevan was elected as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Aneurin Bevan could do little in his new role and died the next year at the age of 62.
Aneurin Bevan’s last speech in the House of Commons, in which Aneurin Bevan referred to the difficulties of persuading the electorate to support a policy which would make them less well-off in the short term but more prosperous in the long term, was quoted extensively in subsequent years.
In 2004, over 40 years after his death, he was voted 1st in a list of 100 Welsh Heroes, this being credited much to his contribution to the Welfare State after World War II.
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