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.
In other trades there are a thousand diversions to break the monotony of work - the passing traffic, the morning newspaper, above all, the sky, the sunshine, the wind and the rain. The miner has none of these. Every day for eight hours he dies, gives up a slice of his life, literally drops out of life and buries himself. The alarum or the "knocker-up" calls him from his bed at half past four. He makes his way to the pithead. The streets are full of shadows with white faces and black-rimmed sunken eyes.
Down below are the sudden perils - runaway trams hurtling down the lines, frightened ponies kicking and mauling in the dark, explosions, fire, drowning. And if he escapes? There is a tiredness as the reward of exertion, a physical blessing which makes sleep a matter of relaxed limbs and muscles. This is the tiredness of the miner, particularly of the boy of fourteen or fifteen who falls asleep over his meals and wakes up hours later to find that his evening has gone and there is nothing before him but bed and another day's wrestling with inert matter.
The Communist Manifesto stands in a class by itself in Socialist literature. No indictment of the social order ever written can rival it. The largeness of its conception, its profound philosophy and its sure grasp of history, its aphorisms and its satire, all these make it a classic of literature, while the note of passionate revolt which pulses through it, no less than its critical appraisement of the forces of revolt, make it for all rebels an inspiration and a weapon.
The House of Commons is like a church. The vaulted roofs and stained glass windows, the rows of statues of great statesmen of the past, the echoing halls, the soft-footed attendants and the whispered conversations, contrast depressingly with the crowded meetings and the clang and clash of hot opinions he has just left behind in the election campaign. Here he is, a tribune of the people, coming to make his voice heard in the seats of power. Instead, it seems he is expected to worship; and the most conservative of all religions - ancestor worship.
Sir Stafford Cripps and Aneuryn Bevan led the radical Labour grouping that was unequivocal in its opposition to appeasement. The left's earlier pacifist tinge had withered under the heat of the Spanish Civil War. The bellicose, menacing, voices of Hitler and Mussolini needed to be met with a simple refusal to be intimidated. It was obvious that the Axis was playing for our surrender without a fight, which is exactly what Munich promised. The Holborn Constituency Labour Party, along with scores of others, was anti-appeasement and for a policy of standing up to the Dictators. This was also the position of the European Popular Fronts, and it involved accepting common cause with everyone who was of like mind, including, at that particular moment, the Communist Parties. 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. The reason I was being grouped with the great for this call-to-order was that I had been doing a lot of speaking in London and had been billed with Cripps (who turned out to be a distant cousin) on a number of occasions. Though I was perfectly happy in Holborn and though I was not looking for a parliamentary career, there had been talk of finding me another constituency with better electoral prospects. 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. Bevan turned to me and said that expelling me would do no one any good because it would not make the splash that his expulsion and that of Cripps would cause. "You can do more good by thanking them for their letter and simply saying that you have noted its contents. They will leave you alone for a bit and, before they get round to going after you again, we shall all be in this together. " Bevan was sure that Chamberlain had made war a certainty by giving Hitler the idea that he could walk over Britain.
This post-Munich meeting is especially interesting as Cripps, the cooler mind of the two, also thought that war was probable but that France, Britain and the Soviet Union could still unite in a last chance to call Hitler's bluff. They felt their own expulsion from the Labour Party would help to galvanise public opinion in the face of the real risk of appeasement sliding on towards a tolerant acceptance of fascism. "And that," said Cripps to me," is where you can help in leading the younger side of the Labour Movement." "Stay in but don't knuckle under," said Bevan. There was nothing starry-eyed about this. We now know that Chamberlain's Government was secretly informed by General Beck, Chief of the German General Staff, that Great Britain only had to take a decisive stand at the time of the Nazi attack on Czechoslovakia and then the German professional Army would have toppled Hitler. This was between the 18th and the 24th of August 1938, and we had another chance in June of 1939. Churchill himself wrote, when looking back at those years, "There never was a war more easy to stop.“ Had we done so Stalinism would never have lasted a further forty years.
Aneurin and I were at the cottage that Sunday in September when war was declared. We tuned into the one o'clock news for official confirmation that the fight had really begun. We had discussed all this so often and so much. Now at last it had come. Our enemy Hitler had become the national enemy. All those who hated fascism would have their chance to fight back. No more one-sided massing of all the wealth, influence and arms of international reaction against the workers of first one country then another. I thought of Spain. I had a guilty feeling about Spain. I said something to Aneurin that must have indicated the drift of my thoughts. He had been pacing up and down our long, low, white-washed cottage room, for once too excited for words. He stopped walking up and down to rummage in a corner among a disorderly pile of gramophone records. He found what he was looking for. He found records we had not dared to play for more than a year: the marching songs of the Spanish Republican armies.
Every mannerism that he (Aneurin Bevan) cultivates, every speech he delivers, even the expression he wears in the most familiar photographs, bear witness to a profound consciousness of his own superiority. Socialists may believe in the equality of other folk, but Mr. Bevan always conveys the impression of living at a greater intellectual attitude than the rest of the miners' leaders.
I do not like the Daily Mirror and I have never liked it. I do not see it very often. I do not like that form of journalism. I do not like the strip-tease artists. If the Daily Mirror depended upon my purchasing it, it would never be sold. But the Daily Mirror has not been warned because people do not like that kind of journalism. It is not because the Home Secretary is aesthetically repelled by it that he warns it. I have heard a number of honourable members say that it is a hateful paper, a tabloid paper, a hysterical paper, a sensational paper, and that they do not like it. I am sure the Home Secretary does not take that view. He likes the paper. He is taking its money (waves cuttings of articles written by Morrison for the Daily Mirror).
He (Morrison) is the wrong man to be Home Secretary. He has for many years the witch-finder of the Labour Party. He has been the smeller-out of evil spirits in the Labour Party for years. He built up his reputation by selecting people in the Labour Party for expulsion and suppression. He is not a man to be entrusted with these powers because, however suave his utterance, his spirit is really intolerant. I say with all seriousness and earnestness that I am deeply ashamed that a member of the Labour Party should be an instrument of this sort of thing.
How can we call on the people of this country and speak about liberty if the Government are doing all they can to undermine it? The Government are seeking to suppress their critics. The only way for the Government to meet their critics is to redress the wrongs from which the people are suffering and to put their policy right.
The Government has tried everything to solve the problem of the mining industry. Semi-starvation, imprisonment, extortions, threats, the supplications of the miners' leaders, and what is almost the omnipotence of Churchill's oratory - all have failed. There is one thing they have not tried. They haven't tried getting rid of the coalowners. For the one truth the Government have not learned. You can get coal without coalowners, but you cannot get coal without miners. Let us not lose heart. The miners will teach it them one day.
As Socialists we are bound to in duty to support Soviet Russia when it acts as a progressive Socialist power. But it is equally our Socialist obligation to raise our voice against any attempts of the strong as trampling over the rights of the weak. As Socialists we fight the reactionary ambitions and claims of the Poles; but we must defend Poland's right to self-determination and independence just as we defend the rights of any other nation oppressed or threatened by oppression.
As news of these feats of endurance seeped through to Britain the suspicion began to grow that some people in the British establishment would not be too unhappy to see Russia expend herself unaided in tying Hitler down, and the clamour for the opening of a second front to relieve Russia's agony grew in intensity. Aneurin Bevan was its most vociferous advocate both in the columns of Tribune and in Parliament. He was rapidly emerging as the most challenging figure on the left of politics, a thorn in the flesh of the Labour leadership and the favourite bogeyman of the right-wing press. He was politically and physically the product of the South Wales mining community from which he sprang; of stocky build and defiant temperament he was blessed with the gift of Welsh oratory that could encapsulate the experience of less articulate people in a vivid phrase. He once summed up his socialism with the words, "You can get coal without coal owners, but you cannot get coal without miners." It was the sort of phrase to set alight the political imagination of the most moderate. He had climbed from the pits to Parliament by fighting the coal owners and it had left him with bitter memories of the struggles he and his fellow miners had had to wage.
This bitterness was to be the source of both his strength and his weaknesses. He came into Parliament with a heavy sense of responsibility to the people among whom he had grown up and to his own class, and it gave him an outsize courage which few other politicians possessed. I did not know him well personally at that time but I was stirred by the accounts of his one-man battles in the House with Churchill the Goliath. The audacity of it was breathtaking, for Churchill was our war leader at the peak of his authority and a hero to everyone else.
Aneurin also deeply distrusted Churchill politically. He had warmly supported his replacement of Chamberlain, but was shocked when he proceeded to appease the appeasers by keeping so many of them in his War Cabinet. Even Chamberlain was retained as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House, while the arch-Municheer, Lord Halifax, remained Foreign Secretary. Nor could Nye forgive Churchill's sudden assumption of the leadership of the Conservative Party in the middle of the war.
There is no absence of knowledge, there is no lack of wisdom, as to what to do in Great Britain. What is lacking is that the power lies in the wrong hands and the will to do it is not there. We want to tell our friends on the other side that the men in the Services are not going to allow a repetition of what happened between the wars. We are not going to allow our financial resources to be sent all over the world, and idleness and starvation to exist in Great Britain. And we warn them we are entering this fight with this in our hearts. We were brought up between the two wars in the distressed areas of this country, and we have such biting and bitter memories we will never be erased until the Tories are destroyed on every political platform in the country. 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.
There was a strict rule in Nye's Ministry that any unsolicited gifts sent to him should be promptly returned. On one occasion, and only one, an exception was made. Nye brought home a letter containing a white silk handkerchief with crochet round the edge. The hanky was for me. The letter was from an elderly Lancashire lady, unmarried, who had worked in the cotton mills from the age of twelve. She was overwhelmed with gratitude for the dentures and reading glasses she had received free of charge. The last sentence in her letter read, "Dear God, reform thy world beginning with me," but the words that hurt most were, "Now I can go into any company." The life-long struggle against poverty which these words revealed is what made all the striving worthwhile.
It is no accident that Nye, born in the mining valleys of Wales, should be the most popular leader in the Labour Movement today. The new Health Bill could have no better champion. Fearless in debate, brilliantly intelligent in the political field, I have always been able to call Nye my friend, and am honoured to do so. We have had our battles (what Chairman of Housing worth his salt hasn't had them with the Minister of Health ?) but I always found him big enough to fight clean. I shall always remember a small incident at the reception given by the General Council of the T.U.C. at Norwich. I was introduced to Aneurin Bevan and he immediately asked me to go and get him a drink, in what I thought a rather high and mighty way. Feeling my position as Brigade Commander, I told him, " Go and get your own bloody drink." He laughed and replied, " All right, lad, and I'll get one for you too." I've looked back on this small incident as a rather bad show of conceit on my part and darned good nature on his. Nye keeps his enthusiasm burning. Above all he refuses to be drawn from the level of those who nurtured him - the workers. No fur coats here, nor top hats; I notice these things and so do millions of other workers. Ideologies are built on big ideas and simple actions, they start and finish with individuals.
Hugh Gaitskell had many fine qualities, including unswerving loyalty to his close band of friends and to the principles of economics as he interpreted them, together with great personal charm. But once he came to a decision, a remarkably speedy process associated with great certainty, the Medes and the Persians had nothing on him. Whether the argument took place in the Cabinet, or later in the Shadow Cabinet or the National Executive, any colleague taking a different line from his was regarded not only as an apostate, but as a troublemaker or simply a person lacking in brains.
Hugh Gaitskell and Nye Bevan were as temperamentally and politically opposed to one another as it was possible to be within a single political party. I had relations of fairly long standing with both of them. I had first come close to Nye during my housing stint at the Ministry of Works, although it had taken time for the relationship to develop. Nye was suspicious of university-trained MPs, particularly those from Oxford and above all economists, but I had broken down that barrier and we had great confidence in each other. I had early developed an admiration for Hugh Gaitskell's qualities and in many way we were intellectual partners. He was more doctrinaire and I was more of a pragmatist.
One other fact soon became clear about Hugh. He was certainly ambitious, and had close links with the right-wing trade unions. It was not long before that ambition took the form of a determination to outmanoeuvre, indeed humiliate, Aneurin Bevan. Hugh, for his part, despised what he regarded as emotional oratory, and if he could defeat Nye in open conflict, he would be in a strong position to oust Morrison as the heir apparent to Clement Attlee. At the same time he would ensure that post-war socialism would take a less dogmatic form, totally anti-communist but unemotional.
At a private meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the early autumn of 1948 the subject of Bevan's 'vermin' reference came up. It will be all too well remembered that at an otherwise unimportant gathering at Manchester in July Bevan had recalled the burning hatred he had felt during his youth for the Tories. "So far as I am concerned," he had finished, "they are lower than vermin."
This remark came not long after he had said, at a pre-conference rally at Blackpool in May, that the British press was the most prostituted in the world. Not unnaturally the journalists were both voluntarily, and probably by editorial order, on the watch for the slightest chance to lambast their accuser and the result was headlines for the 'vermin' statement.
At the meeting I said that the best thing for the cause of socialism would have been for some prominent Tory to have called us vermin. Bevan was extremely annoyed at this and worked himself into a high pitch of indignation at the fuss being made about what he called an unimportant comment. Its importance or unimportance was perhaps better left to the opinion of Laski, an expert in making such estimates, who put the Tory gain from the 'vermin' slight at two million votes. I do not regard this as an exaggeration.
In face of the continued refusal of his colleagues to dismiss the words as unimportant Bevan fell back on the suggestion that he had been misreported. I am afraid that on occasion he is an expert in saying things which the shorthand writers seem to get wrong. I believe that he genuinely believes that he said something else and his more excitable and ill-advised outbursts must to some extent be forgiven because of his temperament. At a political meeting he lives as part of his audience. He is partly its master and partly its creature. When he is speaking to an audience which is almost entirely on his side there is applause for something he says which finds favour. This goes to his head and he is tempted against his better judgment to say something more to the audience's liking in order to transform the applause into an ovation.
I have made it clear to you, the Prime Minister, and Gaitskell that I consider the imposition of charges on any part of the Health Service raises issues of such seriousness and fundamental importance that I could never agree to it. If it were decided by the Government to impose them, my resignation would automatically follow. Despite this, spokesmen of the Treasury and you have not hesitated to press this so-called solution upon the Government. But surely it must be apparent to you that it can hardly create friendly relations if, in spite of the knowledge of how seriously I regard this question, you continue to press it. I am not such a hypocrite that I can pretend to have amiable discourses with people who are entirely indifferent to my most strongly held opinions.
The Budget is popular in the Parliamentary Party, even among those who have indicated sympathy for your point of view. It will be popular, though perhaps less so, in the Labour movement in the country. If you resign now on the Budget there will be amazement as well as anger among our colleagues, and the consequences to the Party which would in any circumstances be extremely grave, will be catastrophic. Your own position, and the views we share will be, for some time ahead, seriously compromised. The impending election will find us disunited, without policy and with the reactionaries in full charge of the Party machine which will be used unscrupulously against you and those who stand with you. The result will be a debacle of 1931 proportions - and little or nothing gained.
If you could find some way of not making your resignation public at this moment and on this issue, you would not lack the opportunities in coming weeks - perhaps even days - to go out on an issue to which millions of Labour supporters would rally enthusiastically - the drive towards war, the absence of any coherent foreign policy, the inflationary and anti-working class character of our rearmament economies. The split on all this would be just as big; we should still probably lose the election, though not by so much; but three-quarters of the Labour movement would rally to you, and would hold the initiative and have a good chance of capturing the machine. I beg you to think long and earnestly before you throw away this tremendous opportunity which I believe to be close at hand.
It is wrong (to impose national health charges) because it is the beginning of the destruction of those social services in which Labour has taken a special pride and which were giving to Britain the moral leadership of the world.
The Shadow Cabinet passed a resolution for the approval of Labour MPs, forbidding the Bevanites to continue meeting as a group. This was carried by 188 to fifty-one. A further fifty-three were either absent or abstained. Looking back on these extraordinary events, I am certain that if a government nowadays, Conservative or Labour, were to issue such a ukase, the matter would be raised in the House of Commons as involving an issue of privilege and its reference to the relevant committee would lead to strictures on, and possibly the expulsion from Parliament of, the instigators.
I chaired the final meeting of the banned organization and issued this statement: "We deplore this resolution for three reasons. It is illiberal. It is based on allegations which are not true. It is prejudicial to Party unity." I argued that the resolution was unprecedented in parliamentary history. For anyone to assert that MPs should not meet without approval from on high, gave to the Party machine a power which it had never sought to exercise before. We were not, I proclaimed, a "party within a party". The leadership's move was completely based on insincerity. The Gaitskellites continued with their own meetings.
Bevan and Jennie Lee stayed with us in Belgrade for a day or two. Plump, with a florid face and light blue "Welsh" eyes, prematurely gray, Bevan expounded his views slowly and patiently. But along with that went an inquiring mind, quick response, and sparkling wit. The qualities I most liked in him were the unconventionality of his sharp intelligence and a faith in socialism that was that of a man of the people, primordial, unshakable.
Between Bevan and me there was a curious affinity in our perception of the crisis into which both variants of socialism, Western and Eastern, were plunging. We both believed in moral boundaries in politics, though politics as such neither can nor need be moral. Those boundaries do not coincide with the striving for truth, but they are not totally distinct from it either. The later conjectures and charges that Bevan influenced me are untrue. Those charges were officially denied in Tito's letter to Bevan after accounts with me had been settled.
To the end, Bevan and Jennie Lee stubbornly protested against the pressures brought to bear on me, and he turned for help to the Socialist International. His death in 1960, while I was in prison, hit me like the loss of a very close friend. Other friends had long since abandoned me, and I had been anathematized by many. With me, affinities in viewpoint always blend with personal affection. When I first left prison, I dedicated my book Conversations with Stalin to Bevan, repaying as best I could the debt I owed this faithful and constant fighter.
Jennie Lee differed from her husband, not so much in the principles she stood for as in her way of interpreting them. More reserved, not as rhetorical, she was sharper and harder than her husband, who in his early youth had been a miner, whereas she had had a university education. For her, principles were the main thing; for him, testing them was equally important.
Jennie Lee came twice to Belgrade on my account, first when I was arrested in 1956 and again when I was released in 1961. The 1956 trip was without question a solace to Stefica and our small circle of sympathizers, but its impact on officials was probably limited to their meting out a "gentler" penalty. Her second trip reinforced our friendship and brought sad memories of Aneurin. We have continued corresponding - infrequently but warmly - to this day. When Stefica and I visited London in 1969, we were in effect guests of hers and under her constant care.
Aneurin Bevan wound up brilliantly and, for once, without malice or even fireworks. We were told not to barrack or interrupt him; those were the orders from on high, since 'Nye' thrives on interjections. He was quick to detect our tactics, and so modified his manner and tone, which made him more effective.
Aneurin Bevan was a strange man. He had great ability and great ambition. He could do the most contrary things, but you could never call him insincere. He had a burning faith in whatever seemed good to him at the time but, outside politics, had no personal faith at all. I have tried to write of what the Christian faith has meant to me in my approach to the Labour movement in its widest sense: many others in the Party have likewise come to Labour primarily because of religious faith - there is a long history of Christian Socialism in our movement. Others, of whom Ernie Bevin was one, grew up without religious faith, but acquired faith in such qualities as the dignity of man; it was a different sort of faith, but it gave them something that they stood by all their lives. Aneurin, and certainly his friends, seem to have grown up without faith in anything. He was a bigger man than his friends, a law to himself, and he had qualities which set him apart from those who were called (or called themselves) Bevanites. He certainly saw himself as a potential Prime Minister, a greater Lloyd George. He was flattered by all the attention and the publicity he got, but he never commanded that solid backing in the Labour movement which would have been necessary to give him the leadership.
Aneurin had great charm. Some people are naturally made to be bigots and they deliberately try to turn on charm when it suits them. Aneurin was the other way round; he was naturally made to be charming, and he had deliberately to turn on the bile. He was generous in every sort of way, and naturally kind. Paradoxically, he could also be a bully, but really he only bullied those who let themselves be bullied. If you stood up to him he would smile broadly, and accept that you were not going to let him get away with something. We had tremendous battles - I remember his describing me at one meeting of the Parliamentary Party as 'Arthur Deakin's lackey'. And yet, in spite of everything and our wide divergencies politically, there was a kind of friendship between us which couldn't be denied.
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?
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.
So what are the reasons why Nye Bevan deserves the mantle of the greatest hero?
First, he was a visionary whose passion and compassion alongside his hard work, persistence and patience, delivered the greatest achievement of Labour in power of the last century – the National Health Service. His vision of healthcare free at the point of use, based on need and not ability to pay, was borne of his own practical experience of hardship in the valleys of south Wales. And now, in its 60th anniversary, securing the NHS true to Nye's vision is still our greatest responsibility.
Second, Bevan was a pragmatist who always knew that principles and values required power to make a difference. As a cabinet minister, he compromised when necessary. As a political leader, he was a realist who was prepared to take the tough decisions when that was not the politically expedient thing to do – pace his disavowal of unilateralism at the 1957 conference in the face of howls of protests from his Bevanite followers.
And third, his passion, his values and his example inspired a succeeding generation of followers, the Bevanites, who were loyal to their hero and determined to nurture his legacy in a way that no other Labour figure has achieved.
Keir Hardie and Clem Attlee were great leaders who paved the way, but who were the Hardie-ites, the Attlee-ites? Barbara Castle? Well she was a Bevanite, as was Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. And, unlike Gaitskellite, Bevanite remains a meaningful term – still today invoking a Labour vision of a better and more equal society. That is why, for me, Nye Bevan deserves the title of Labour's greatest hero.