The Road from Tredegar
Leslie Jones enjoys the new biography of Aneurin Bevan, architect of the NHS
Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan, Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, I.B. Tauris, London, 2015, pp 316
According to an earlier biographer, John Campbell, Aneurin Bevan was ultimately a failure because he adhered to an “erroneous dogma”, democratic socialism that eventually was emphatically rejected by the British people. At times, Bevan himself endorsed this assessment. In 1959, he complained that the British working class had spurned a historic opportunity to abolish capitalism. The masses had evidently succumbed to vulgar materialism and the “delirium of television”. And as Bevan conceded, the left wing or “Bevanite” faction in the Labour Party never exceeded more than around sixty MPs. Labour’s would-be leader signally failed to convert the rest of the parliamentary party to socialism. But other commentators, notably Neil Kinnock in his foreword to Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds new biography, Nye: the Political Life of Aneurin Bevan, demur. Kinnock contends that Bevan’s unshakeable belief in collective action and provision is justifiable, given the latter’s experience of unemployment and poverty in Tredegar in the 1920’s. According to Thomas-Symonds, likewise, millions of people still benefit from Bevan’s “greatest achievement”, the establishment of the NHS, which embodied his conception of “democratic socialism through Parliament”.
Thomas-Symonds’ readable and well researched biography is generally persuasive with the exception of one particular issue, Bevan’s somewhat controversial lifestyle. Historian Robert Crowcroft pithily describes him as “Welsh miner turned bon viveur and social climber”. Even Jennie Lee, to whom Nye proposed in the Café Royal of all places, thought that he kept dubious company, notably that of Lord Beaverbrook and Churchill’s colleague Brendan Bracken MP. Richard Crossman in his Diaries recalls Nye at a conference of the Italian Socialist Party in Venice in 1957, “…impeccably dressed in his beautiful new suit, [and] fresh white linen… pretentiously discussing the qualities of Italian wine, pretending to knowledge of Venetian architecture”.
It is claimed that when Bevan was Minister of Health he and Jennie Lee and some of their relatives dined free at Rene de Meo’s London nightclub and thereby avoided food rationing. The allegation is that Bevan had enabled the night club owner to secure import licences for furniture. Thomas-Symonds also points out that in 1954, Bevan was fined for fleeing the scene of a motor accident possibly to protect the reputation of a titled female “companion”. Then there was the farm in Buckinghamshire purchased in the same year for £15,000 with its 54 acres and a farmhouse with a “heavy entrance door and wide oak staircase”. It provided “the ideal country retreat” where Nye could indulge his taste for fine wine thanks partly to money provided by the bandleader and businessman Jack Hylton. He had clearly come a long way from the impoverished South Wales valleys of his childhood*.
The author’s various attempts to explain away the so-called “Bollinger Bolshevist’s” fondness for the high life make painful reading. Thus, he suggests that for Bevan, the Beaverbrook circle was essentially a sort of superior debating club in which he could hone his intellectual skills! Bevan himself in similar vein regarded mixing with people of different backgrounds to his own as an invaluable means of finding things out.
Hindsight is an inestimable advantage. It enables us to see that Bevan’s political judgment too was sometimes flawed. For example, he did not believe that the economic resources of a country could be fully exploited unless it had a planned economy. Following a visit with John Strachey to the Soviet Union in September 1932 (which included the usual conducted tour of Potemkin Villages) he praised Russia in the House of Commons during the debate on the Hours of Employment Bill, naively demanding “Why can Russia organise her hours of labour and still sell successfully against the rest of the world?” At a meeting in Cardiff of working class organisations in 1933, similarly, he declared that capitalism was doomed and supported Communist affiliation to the Labour Party. And somewhat later in 1957, he described the launch of Sputnik as proof of the technological superiority of the USSR over the USA and a demonstration that the planned economy is superior to the free market. Note also that as late as July 1937, he remained resolutely opposed to rearmament, despite the growing threat from Nazi Germany.
Concerning Michael Foot’s eloquent but hagiographic life of Bevan, his (Bevan’s) close friend Archie Lush complained that “the Cromwellian warts have been left out […]”. Lush was referring specifically to the ballot rigging episode which in 1929 enabled Bevan to replace the sitting MP for Ebbw Vale, Evan Davies, as the official Labour candidate. In Thomas-Symonds’ life of Aneurin Bevan, in contrast, the warts are left in, although ineffectual attempts are made to disguise them.
*Bevan was born in 1897 at Tredegar in the South Wales coalfield
Leslie Jones, January 2015
Leslie Jones is the editor of QR