Aneurin Bevan, the son of David Bevan, a miner, was born in Tredegar, Monmouthshire on 15th November 1897. Both Aneurin's parents were Nonconformists: his father was a Baptist and his mother a Methodist. 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. One of ten children, Aneurin was unsuccessful at school and his academic performance was so bad that his headmaster made him repeat a year. At the age of thirteen Aneurin left school and began working in the Tytryst Colliery.
Although Bevan disliked school he had developed a love of reading. He joined the Tredegar Workmen's Institute Library where he read the works of H. G. Wells, Rider Haggard and Jack London. Bevan also began attending the Tredegar branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Like most members of the ILP, Bevan was a strong opponent of Britain's involvement in the First World War. Bevan also joined the Tredegar branch of the South Wales Miners' Federation. He soon became a union activist and by the time he was nineteen he was chairman of his Miners' Lodge. Bevan became a well-known local orator and was seen by his employers, the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company, as a revolutionary. The manager of the colliery found an excuse to get him sacked. However, with the support of the Miners' Federation, the case was judged as one of victimization and the company was forced to re-employ him.
In 1919 Aneurin Bevan won a scholarship to study at the Central Labour College in London. Sponsored by the South Wales Miners' Federation, Bevan spent two years studying economics, politics and history at the college. It was during this period that Bevan read the Communist Manifesto and was converted to the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. While at college Bevan was given elocution lessons by Clara Bunn. Reciting long passages by William Morris, Bevan gradually began to overcome the stammer that he had since he was a child.
When Bevan returned home in 1921 the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company refused to employ him. For the next three years he was without work. During this time Bevan worked as an unpaid adviser to people living in Tredegar. Bevan considered emigrating to Australia but in 1924 he found work at Bedwellty Colliery. After ten months the owners decided to close the colliery down and Bevan had to endure another year of unemployment. In February 1925, Aneurin's much loved father died of pneumoconiosis.
In 1926 Bevan was employed as a union official. His wages of £5 a week was paid by the members of the local Miners' Lodge. On 15th April 1926, the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company, like all colliery companies, posted at the pit-head lock-out notices. When the General Strike started on 3rd May 1926, Bevan soon emerged as one of the leaders of the South Wales miners.
After the TUC leaders called off the strike, the miners remained locked-out for six months. 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.
In 1928 Bevan was elected to the Monmouthshire County Council. The following year Bevan was selected by the Labour Party of Ebbw Vale to be their candidate in the forthcoming parliamentary election. In the 1929 General Election, Bevan easily defeated his Liberal and Conservative opponents. His first speech in the House of Commons was an attack on Winston Churchill, his main enemy during the 1926 General Strike. Aneurin Bevan also became a fierce critic of Margaret Bondfield, the Minister of Labour, for her unwillingness to increase unemployment benefits.
Bevan was one of the most outspoken opponents of Ramsay MacDonald and his National Government. He led the campaign against the introduction of the Means Test. In the House of Commons Bevan argued that the "purpose of the Means Test is not to discover a handful of people receiving public money when they have means to supply themselves. The purpose is to compel a large number of working-class people to keep other working-class people, to balance the Budget by taking £8 to £10 millions from the unemployed."
In 1931 G.D.H. Cole created the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda (SSIP). This was later renamed the Socialist League. Other members included William Mellor, Charles Trevelyan, Stafford Cripps, H. N. Brailsford, D. N. Pritt, R. H. Tawney, Frank Wise, David Kirkwood, Clement Attlee, Neil Maclean, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Alfred Salter, Jennie Lee, Gilbert Mitchison, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Ellen Wilkinson, Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Pugh, Michael Foot and Barbara Betts. Margaret Cole admitted that they got some of the members from the Guild Socialism movement: "Douglas and I recruited personally its first list drawing upon comrades from all stages of our political lives." The first pamphlet published by the SSIP was The Crisis (1931) was written by Cole and Bevin.
According to Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977): "The Socialist League... set up branches, undertook to promote and carry out research, propaganda and discussion, issue pamphlets, reports and books, and organise conferences, meetings, lectures and schools. To this extent it was strongly in the Fabian tradition, and it worked in close conjunction with Cole's other group, the New Fabian Research Bureau." The main objective was to persuade a future Labour government to implement socialist policies.
In April 1933 G.D.H. Cole, R. H. Tawney and Frank Wise, signed a letter urging the Labour Party to form a United Front against fascism, with political groups such as the Communist Party of Great Britain. However, the idea was rejected at that year's party conference. The same thing happened the following year. Although disappointed, the Socialist League issued a statement in June 1935 that it would not become involved in activities definitely condemned by the Labour Party which will jeopardise our affiliation and influence within the Party."
In 1934 Bevan married his fellow left-wing Labour MP, Jennie Lee. The couple became active in the Committee for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism. To Bevan and Lee, the rise of fascism was an accurate fulfillment of the prophecies made by Karl Marx. Opposition to fascism was vitally important if a socialist society was to be created in the future.
In 1936 the Conservative government in Britain feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government. Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.
In the House of Commons on 29th October 1936, Clement Attlee, Philip Noel-Baker and Arthur Greenwood argued against the government policy of Non-Intervention. As Noel-Baker pointed out: "We protest with all our power against the sham, the hypocritical sham, that it now appears to be." Cole and Jack Murphy, the General Secretary of the Socialist League also called for help to be given to the Popular Front government.
Stafford Cripps was another advocate for an United Front: "Up till recent times it was the avowed object of the Communist Party to discredit and destroy the social democratic parties such as the British Labour Party, and so long as that policy remained in force, it was impossible to contemplate any real unity... The Communists had... disavowed any intention, for the present, of acting in opposition to the Labour Movement in the country, and certainly their action in many constituences during the last election gives earnest of their disavowal." Aneurin Bevan added: "It is of paramount importance that our immediate efforts and energies should be directed to organising a United Front and a definite programme of action."
In 1936 the Socialist League joined forces with the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Independent Labour Party and various trades councils and trade union brances to organize a large-scale Hunger March. Aneurin Bevan argued: "Why should a first-class piece of work like the Hunger March have been left to the initiative of unofficial members of the Party, and to the Communists and the ILP... Consider what a mighty response the workers would have made if the whole machinery of the Labour Movement had been mobilised for the Hunger March and its attendant activities."
On 31st October, 1936 the Socialist League called an anti-fascist conference in Whitechapel and discussed the best ways of dealing with Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. Over the next few months meetings were held. The Socialist League was represented by Stafford Cripps and William Mellor, the Communist Party of Great Britain by Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt and the Independent Labour Party by James Maxton and Fenner Brockway.
Stafford Cripps was the main supporter of a United Front in the Socialist League: "The Communist Party and the ILP may not represent very large numbers, but all of us who have knowledge of militant working-class activities throughout the country are bound to admit that Communists and ILPers have played and are playing a very fine part in such activities... Just as unity has wrought wonders in Spain, inspiring and encouraging the Spanish workers with a heroism past all praise, so in our, as yet, less arduous struggle it can give new life and vitality."
Richard Crossman disagreed with Cripps and his followers: "The Socialist League... dilate on the need for Communist affiliation and a strong policy with regard to Spain, as though these items were of the slightest interest to any save the minority of politically conscious electors. Such critics frame their propaganda to satisfy their own tastes and neglect the simple fact that it is not they but the Tory voters who must be converted. Their busy activity is self-intoxicating, but millions of people still read the racing page, because, on the whole, conditions are not bad enough to drive them to politics, and they have not seen a Labour canvasser for five years, far less seen any signs of practical activity by the local Labour Party."
After the success of the Left Book Club during the summer of 1936, Bevan and other members of the left-wing of the Labour Party began to believe there was a market for a socialist weekly newspaper. In January 1937 Stafford Cripps and George Strauss decided to launch a radical weekly, The Tribune, to "advocate a vigorous socialism and demand active resistance to Fascism at home and abroad." William Mellor was appointed editor and others such as Aneurin Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Betts, Konni Zilliacus, Harold Laski, Michael Foot and Noel Brailsford agreed to write for the paper. Winifred Batho reviewed films and books for the journal. Mellor wrote in the first issue: "It is capitalism that has caused the world depression. It is capitalism that has created the vast army of the unemployed. It is capitalism that has created the distressed areas... It is capitalism that divides our people into the two nations of rich and poor. Either we must defeat capitalism or we shall be destroyed by it."
Bevan also joined with other left-wing Labour Party MPs that campaigned for the formation of a Popular Front with other left-wing groups in Europe to prevent the spread of fascism. At the 1936 Labour Party Conference, several party members, including George Strauss, Ellen Wilkinson, Stafford Cripps and Charles Trevelyan, argued that military help should be given to the Spanish Popular Front government, fighting for survival against General Francisco Franco and his right-wing Nationalist Army.
Along with George Strauss, Emanuel Shinwell, Sydney Silverman and Ellen Wilkinson Bevan toured Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Shinwell later wrote: "The reason for the defeat of the Spanish Government was not in the hearts and minds of the Spanish people. They had a few brief weeks of democracy with a glimpse of all that it might mean for the country they loved. The disaster came because the Great Powers of the West preferred to see in Spain a dictatorial Government of the right rather than a legally elected body chosen by the people."
Bevan and Stafford Cripps joined the campaign against appeasement. This included speaking on the same platform with members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In his autobiography, Very Little Luggage, his friend, Kenneth Sinclair Loutit, explained what happened: "The result was that Cripps, Bevan and myself (midget though I was beside such men) received a letter of anathema from the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. We were told that we would be expelled from the Labour Party if we continued to appear on platforms that included Communists.... So I found myself sitting in an office in Chancery Lane with Cripps and Bevan while Cripps held up the letter to re-read the National Executive's terms for our rehabilitation. Cripps treated it as though it were a document replete with indecent details in a carnal knowledge case. Bevan said something about preferring to be out than in. The way things were going, so he said, it was no time to be mealy-mouthed. So they refused to assure the National Executive that they would in future keep more right-wing company."
Iin March 1939 Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps and Charles Trevelyan were expelled from the Labour Party. However, they were readmitted in November 1939 after agreeing "to refrain from conducting or taking part in campaigns in opposition to the declared policy of the Party."
At the beginning of the Second World War Aneurin Bevan became the foremost parliamentary critic of Neville Chamberlain and his government. Bevan argued that Winston Churchill should replace Chamberlain. Once Churchill was in power, Bevan used his influence as editor of Tribune and the leader of the left-wing MPs in the House of Commons, to shape government policies. Bevan opposed the heavy censorship imposed on radio and newspapers and wartime Regulation 18B that gave the Home Secretary the powers to lock up citizens without trial. Bevan called for the nationalization of the coal industry and advocated the opening of a Second Front in Western Europe in order to help the Soviet Union in its fight with Germany. Churchill responded by calling Bevan the Minister of Disease.
Bevan believed that the Second World War would give Britain the opportunity to create a new society. He often 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 beginning of the 1945 General Election campaign 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 the 1945 General Election, Clement Attlee, the new Labour Prime Minister, appointed Bevan as Minister of Health. In 1946 Parliament passed the revolutionary National Insurance Act. It instituted a comprehensive state health service, effective from 5th July 1948. The Act provided for compulsory contributions for unemployment, sickness, maternity and widows' benefits and old age pensions from employers and employees, with the government funding the balance.
The National Insurance Act created the structure of the Welfare State and after the passing of the National Health Service Act in 1948, people in Britain were provided with free diagnosis and treatment of illness, at home or in hospital, as well as dental and ophthalmic services. As Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan was now in charge of 2,688 hospitals in England and Wales.
Bevan served for a short period as Minister of Labour in 1951 but resigned on 21st April with Harold Wilson and John Freeman when Hugh Gaitskell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that he intended to introduce measures that would force people to pay half the cost of dentures and spectacles and a one shilling prescription charge. For the next five years Bevan was the leader of the left-wing of the Labour Party. Bevan's Tribune group criticised high defence expenditure (especially over nuclear weapons) and opposed the reformist policies of Clement Attlee.
Bevan's radicalism was less marked after 1956 when he agreed to serve the new leader, Hugh Gaitskell, as shadow foreign secretary. In October, 1957 he decided to make a speech against unilateral nuclear disarmament at the party conference. His wife, Jennie Lee, disagreed strongly with his decision: "I did not argue with him that evening, he had to be left in peace to work things out for himself, but he was in no doubt that I would have preferred him to take the easy way. I dreaded the violence of the Conference atmosphere which I knew would be generated by the dedicated advocates of immediate unilateral nuclear disarmament, but, like Nye, I did not foresee the bitterness of the personal attacks made by some delegates who ought to have known him well enough not to have doubted his motives. Disagreement was one thing: character assassination another. Were these his friends? Were these his comrades he had fought for over so many years? Could they really believe that he was a small-time career politician prepared to sacrifice his principles in order to become second-in-command to the right-wing leader of the Party?
Bevan later recalled: "I knew this morning that I was going to make a speech that would offend and even hurt many of my friends. I know that you are deeply convinced that the action you suggest is the most effective way of influencing international affairs. I am deeply convinced that you are wrong. It is therefore not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed. It is the most difficult of all problems facing mankind. 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."
Aneurin Bevan became deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1959, but he was already a very ill man and died of cancer on 6th July, 1960.