Nye Bevan Book Review

Tribune 28 November 2014

Bevan’s NHS legacy is his saving grace

Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds. IB Tauris £25
Written By: Denis MacShane
Published: November 28, 2014
In 1949, Time reported that after two centuries of British politics being based on John Locke’s triptych of life, liberty and prosperity the British people were now told they were entitled to ‘homes, health, education and social services.
The man Time was quoting as he set up the goals all decent politics should strive for was Aneurin Bevan. He was born and grew up in poverty, began to work as a miner while an adolescent, and never went to Oxford – now the sine qua non to be in the shadow cabinet.
Seventy years later, an American presi¬dent, a good man, also born without the correct skin colour to ease advancement, has tried to do what Nye Bevan did and allow the people of America to live without fear of crippling financial burdens if they fall ill. The National Health Service remains an amazing, at times unbelieveable political accomplishment. It is Labour’s creation which is why the reborn Old Etonian millionaires cabinet is so keen to dilute and weaken the NHS.
Nye Bevan can claim to have brought about the single biggest achievement of any 20th century government. But outside this proof that government can do big things if it has big people willing to do them – and the financial straight-jacket post-1945 Britain was in was infinitely worse than the piddling debt and deficit problems of today – how much does Bevan matter?
Francis Beckett wrote a good bio¬graphy of Bevan a decade ago and there is also Michael Foot’s two-volume hagio¬graphy. Oxford don Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds does a warts and all job and is interesting on Bevan’s English-speaking Welshness. Today, however, it is hard to see how a new Bevan could emerge. As an MP, he never did surgeries and lived in comfort in swank London flats or nice country houses close to London.
An ardent Zionist and strongly in favour of nuclear weapons, he spent endless time with Lord Beaverbrook, the Rupert Murdoch of his time, whose disgusting racist imperialism and appeasement of Hitler seems not to have bothered Bevan. He certainly would have been reported to the Parliamentary Commissioner for undisclosed gifts of money from rich hangers-on. Crates of fine wine arrived and Thomas-Symonds provides no details on how Bevan paid for this luxurious life-style. The Mail on Sunday would have loved the scandal of Bevan crashing into a bus while driving to Oxford with a titled lady and then fleeing the scene. In those days, MPs were protected by the police so Bevan escaped censure.
And outside the years under Clement Attlee’s control as Health Minister, Bevan was a political disaster. His lurch into vicious, personalised leftism after 1951 and his contempt for middle-class consumerism guaranteed three Tory victories much as the anti-European fake socialism of Labour after 1980 kept Margaret Thatcher in power.
Bevan had five glorious, historic years as a minister, though he handed the Tories a gift by not building enough homes. As Health Minister a star, as Housing Minister a failure. But on Bevan as a Labour MP and politician much tougher questions need to be asked by a biographer who wants to do history rather than ancestor-worship. If he does a second edition, the author should re¬move the comparison of Bevan to de Gaulle on foreign policy ¬– it’s just wrong.

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