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Wednesday, July 1, 1998 Published at 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK

Aneurin Bevan - Labour's lost leader

Bevan: too tempestuous to be leader, but too talented to be ignored

Nye Bevan's place in history was assured when, as minister for health, he set up the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948.

He was a man with a hat-full of talents. He was a brilliant speaker, an intellectual and a skilful administrator who could have gone a lot further. But Bevan was a rebel, and few rebels get to the very top.

[ image: John Campbell: Bevan was one of the century's foremost British socialists]
John Campbell: Bevan was one of the century's foremost British socialists
Aneurin Bevan was born in 1897 into a mining family in Tredegar, a village in the heart of the South Wales valleys. Bevan's biographer, John Campbell, sets the scene for Bevan's early years saying: "Coal was King. And the miners were the acknowledged aristocrats of labour."

Inevitably Bevan began working down the pits while still a teenager. The tough life of a miner, whose hard, dangerous and dirty job received little pay, shaped his view of the world. He became a socialist and joined the Labour Party.

'An ambitious man'

Bevan quickly realised that without power he would be unable to better the position of the working class but, as Campbell says, his ambition was not selfish. He was "an ambitious man, but not just ambitious for himself. He was ambitious for his whole class."

Bevan uses his skill as a speaker to humiliate PM Anthony Eden during the Suez crisis, 1956
When he arrived in the Commons as the MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929, Bevan, a little over 30, was the youngest miner to have been elected to Westminster.

Despite a stammer and a tendency to slur his R's, Bevan soon established a reputation as a formidable Commons performer, debater and orator. Never bashful, he used his maiden speech to attack the political giants of the day, Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George.

Unfortunately for Bevan, Labour's time in office was short. But the new member for Ebbw Vale was lucky. He was one of just 52 Labour MPs who survived the General Election massacre of 1931.

'A squalid nuisance'

With Labour in opposition Bevan's patience with the Labour leadership, which he saw as timid, ceased. In the years running up to the Second World War, Bevan established a reputation as a left-wing firebrand. He became the parliamentary scourge of both the Tory party and the Labour leadership. Bevan's fierce attacks on the official Labour line even led to his expulsion from the party for most of 1939.

Characteristically, Bevan kept up his role of parliamentary rebel throughout the war, never ceasing to attack the government's sometimes shaky direction of the war effort even after Labour entered the national government in 1940.

Bevan's constant and occasionally effective attacks led the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill to label him a "squalid nuisance".

John Campbell: bringing Bevan into the cabinet was "an imaginative choice"
Cabinet minister

Labour was returned to power after the war with a thumping but unexpected majority. So given Bevan's track record, it came as a terrific shock when the new prime minister Clement Attlee included Bevan in his cabinet.

Attlee gave Bevan responsibility for two tremendously sensitive posts: health and housing. Housing was crying out for attention. As a result of the war, Britain had several million bomb damaged houses in urgent need of attention and the public had been expecting the establishment of a national health service since the Beveridge report recommended one in 1942.

Despite initial criticisms over the number of houses the government was able to construct and the stormy ride with the doctors while setting up the health service, Bevan executed both tasks with skill.

Having carried out the tasks set him with distinction, it was not unreasonable for Bevan to expect promotion to one of the key cabinet posts, either the foreign secretary, or chancellor of the exchequer.

He got neither and was instead moved sideways and down a little to the ministry of Labour in 1951.

'An preventable resignation'

After nearly six years in government, Bevan's frustration was building. Not only had he been passed over for promotion, but as a socialist he found the government's faltering commitment to further nationalisation galling.

John Campbell: Bevan's resignation was "preventable"
But perhaps more importantly, in terms of Bevan's political future, there were several key players in the cabinet who had no wish to see the Labour party drift leftwards in the way Bevan desired. The sooner Bevan was out of the cabinet, the better they would be pleased.

Bevan had often made public his almost religious belief that the health service should be free at the point of use. And when the new Chancellor, and champion of the party's right, Hugh Gaitskell, insisted on the introduction of charges to the health service to help finance the re-armament made necessary by the Korean war, Attlee was forced to chose between the two rivals. He chose Gaitskell.

Bevan resigned from the cabinet in April 1951 taking with him two other members of the government, John Freeman and the future prime minister Harold Wilson. But Campbell asserts the resignation was "preventable" if only the prime minister had managed his ministers better and had Bevan been able to manage his temper.

John Campbell charts the consequences of the Bevanite - Gaitskellite split
It was the most dramatic resignation in post-war history, and it split the Labour party for over a generation.

By resigning, Bevan not only undermined Attlee's fading government, which was by now clinging on to power with a Commons majority of just five, but he set in motion the tribal warfare between those on the left of the party (the Bevanites) and those on the right (the Gaitskellites), which continued in various forms until the 1990s when the descendants of the Bevanites were finally defeated by Tony Blair's New Labour.

Papering over the splits

Bevan died of cancer on July 6, 1960. Ironically, by the time of his death he had done much to heal the party of the wounds caused by his resignation. Despite coming close to expulsion again in the 1950s, Bevan had begun to form a working relationship with Gaitskell who replaced Attlee as Labour leader in 1955.

He softened his stance on nationalisation and most importantly, despite repeated opposition, he eventually backed the Labour leadership's view that Britain should have an independent nuclear deterrent.

He agreed to work in the shadow cabinet under Gaitskell, first with the brief for the colonies and later as shadow foreign secretary.

His earlier resignation from the cabinet had destroyed any chance of him becoming party leader, but he was to the end one of the Labour movement's most effective and charismatic figures however destructive an influence he may have been.

To the end, Campbell asserts Bevan had been an unashamed class warrior, but a class warrior characterised not by bitterness but by optimism and generosity.

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Handle with care

Five decades into the future

Aneurin Bevan - Labour's lost leader

The cost of being healthy

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The health of the nation

The first NHS patient

A career of caring

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