Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960)
With NHS in crisis these days and often pointed out to its appalling failure it is worthwhile remembering its architect. The son of a coal miner, he was a lifelong champion of social justice and the rights of working people. For his qualities and service he stands on the same footing as Ernest Bevin as one of the remarkable politicians in the modern history of Great Britain.
For instance his opposition to the Means Test when introduced by the Ramsey MacDonald government. 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.”Bevan was one of the most outspoken opponents of Ramsay MacDonald and his National Government. Churchill also fared no better. For Bevan’s frequent criticisms Churchill would dub him as ‘squalid nuisance.’
Today perhaps Bevan stands more burnished than ever what with the emergence of Labour Party as viable alternative the Tories in the post-Margaret Thatcher period. The rank and file in his day was as one behind him who dismissed the Tories as ‘vermin’. Though lacking in academic qualities or privileges that Churchill would consider as necessary appurtenances, he could stand as equal with him as an orator. No greater contrast could be found between the two than in Nye Bevan’s improvised magic went straight to heart of the matter while Churchillian literary allusions and armada of words sounded more sonorous. Compare Bevan’s ‘The religion of socialism is the language of priorities’ with the blood, sweat and tears’ harangue.
Bevan shared with Hugh Gaitskill a tragic destiny. Each was cut off as he reached near his supreme opportunity. Nye Bevan resigned from Attlee’s Cabinet over Gaitskill’s Budget. They fought for the soul of the labour movement and felled each other in the process.
Health Sevice built during his ministry 1945-1951) is his monumental achievement.
According to Professor Dai Smith, he was ‘that rare being, a practical politician with a philosophy for his actions beyond the minutiae of political activity, which was, in turn, only a means to achieve social and cultural ends.’