Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan, by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds

Roger Morgan lauds a biography charting Labour statesman’s rise from a colliery to the Cabinet

December 11, 2014

The Labour politician Aneurin (Nye) Bevan (1897-1960; not to be confused with Ernest Bevin, 1881-1951) remains virtually unique among public figures – the only competitor perhaps being Winston Churchill – in having coined several phrases that remain in our memories long after his death. In 1948, as the minister of health who created the National Health Service, he memorably expressed contempt for the NHS’ Conservative opponents by saying that he regarded Tories as “lower than vermin”; in the early 1950s, in rivalry for the Labour leadership with the cerebral economist Hugh Gaitskell, he implied that Gaitskell was no more than “a desiccated calculating machine”; and at the Labour Party Conference of 1957, having by now become Gaitskell’s shadow foreign secretary and having abandoned his earlier commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, Bevan shocked some of his old comrades by affirming that for Britain to give up its nuclear deterrent would be “to send the Foreign Secretary naked into the conference chamber”.

As Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds’ lucid and informative biography shows, Bevan’s career was divided into three distinct phases. The first was the longest, lasting from his early years to 1945, by which time he was approaching the age of 50; the second phase, the short but intensive period 1945-51, represented the summit of his political power as a key member of Clement Attlee’s Labour Cabinet and of the party’s National Executive Committee, creating the NHS and looking in many ways like a future prime minister; and the third phase, the decade from his tempestuous ministerial resignation in 1951 until his death in 1960, displayed signs of the old leftwing firebrand, combined sometimes with the statesmanlike views illustrated in his already quoted position on nuclear disarmament.

It is worth noting that the bitter disputes that divided Attlee’s Cabinet arose from personal ambition as well as the substance of the issues

If the book’s central section explains how hard Bevan had to fight, as a Cabinet minister, to create a health service of the kind he wanted, the early chapters recount in fascinating detail the struggles he underwent in his long apprenticeship for this exalted position. We see Bevan, like many sons of South Wales mining families, leaving school at 13 to work in the pit in his home town of Tredegar. Almost at once, significantly, we see him elected to represent his fellow workers’ grievances to the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company, and step by step he advances up the hierarchy of the South Wales Miners’ Federation.

This ascent to a high level in the industrial wing of the Labour movement was paralleled by Bevan’s impressive promotion in local government, and in due course as an MP. From his beginnings as a member of Tredegar town council, then of Monmouthshire County Council, Bevan broadened his experience of public life, and exercised his talents as an orator, before becoming MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929. As Thomas-Symonds shows, Bevan’s early experience of politics had been essentially practical, but in the early 1920s the miners’ union financed his participation in a two-year “sabbatical” at the Central Labour College in London.

Bevan arrived in Westminster as a newly elected MP in 1929, as the Labour Party faced one of its greatest crises. Ramsay MacDonald and some senior colleagues deserted Labour to form a “National Government” dominated by Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives. The Labour Party’s principal reaction to a crushing defeat was a decisive swing to the left, and its debates now gave a greater prominence to such bodies as the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist League, as well as the Left Book Club and the influential weekly Tribune.

In all these debates, and in his 1944 book Why Not Trust the Tories?, Bevan saw himself as the representative of the socialist Left against the capitalist National Government. It is striking, although not totally surprising, to be reminded that when war came in 1939, both Bevan and his mentor, Stafford Cripps, were still Labour MPs but neither was a member of the party as such: they had been temporarily expelled for their persistent opposition to the party leadership.

On the outbreak of war this exclusion was rapidly rescinded, and the last years of Bevan’s pre-ministerial phase, 1939 to 1945, saw him operating in a new and contrasting context. All of Labour’s most prominent leaders – Attlee, Herbert Morrison, Ernest Bevin, Cripps and Hugh Dalton – were members of Churchill’s coalition government and the task of parliamentary opposition fell to the next generation, of which Bevan established himself as the most forthright and often the most effective. He worked hard to master the main issues facing Britain, such as those of long-term global strategy, and his Commons speeches often expressed sustained criticism of Churchill’s conduct of the war, as well as criticism of Morrison, the home secretary, whom Bevan accused of infringing the principle of freedom of speech.

In 1945, when he joined Attlee’s Cabinet as minister of health (which included responsibility for housing), Bevan did so as a seasoned public figure whose views on a wide range of policy issues carried great weight. In addition to his heavy departmental duties of shaping the new NHS amid fierce arguments with the British Medical Association, and blending a network of diverse hospitals into a unified national system, Bevan made significant contributions to Cabinet discussions on subjects as varied as the independence of India, the future of Palestine and (during the Korean War) the Attlee government’s rearmament programme.

It is worth noting – and Thomas-Symonds brings this out very well – that the bitter disputes that divided Attlee’s Cabinet arose from personal ambition as well the substance of the issues: as the author puts it, “Bevan formed a triangular relationship of mutual hatred with Morrison and Bevin”. By 1951, Bevan was outraged that Attlee made Morrison, not him, foreign secretary, and Gaitskell chancellor of the Exchequer; and in 1955 when Attlee retired as party leader (having waited for long enough to ensure that his successor would not be Morrison) it was a further mortification for Bevan that the Parliamentary Labour Party preferred Gaitskell to him for the succession.

During the final decade of his life, Bevan’s position was ambiguous, as indeed was that of Labour as a whole. Within six months of his ministerial resignation, the party was in opposition, where it was to remain until 1964. On the one hand, Bevan represented Labour’s leftward trend, mentioned earlier. The party’s so-called Bevanite wing – a loose grouping of resolute individualists including Dick Crossman, Michael Foot and Tom Driberg – issued socialistic criticism of Attlee and Gaitskell in the pages of Tribune, and Bevan demonstrated his leftwing credentials in less public ways too: this reviewer recalls how in the summer of 1951, when Bevan’s two fellow-resigners, Harold Wilson and John Freeman, eagerly accepted invitations to expound their views to the Cambridge University Labour Club, Bevan maintained his long-standing refusal, arguing that Cambridge was not the place for him.

Alongside Bevan’s continuing role as a spokesman for the Labour Left, he increasingly became a weighty elder statesman and “pragmatist”. This ambiguity has accompanied Bevan’s legacy in the Labour Party, as this informative and balanced biography shows by quoting memorial tributes to him not only from the party’s Left, but also from Tony Blair.

Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan

By Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds
IB Tauris, 336pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781780762098
Published 19 November 2014

The author

A barrister-at-law at Civitas and lecturer in politics at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds was, he says, “a determined child”.

“My drive comes from my father. If you ask him to do something, he always does it immediately. My mother is a very caring person, so the combination of the two - my father’s approach to “getting things done” and my mother’s compassion - make me a socialist, interested in the lives and minds of great socialist politicians and what they have achieved.”

He hails from the South Wales mining town of Blaenavon. “My grandfather was a miner, and my father worked in Llanwern steelworks for the best part of 40 years. 

“My whole approach to being a Labour Party activist in my local area comes from this background. Those who worked in the industries of the South Wales valleys of the past were reliant on each other: in the mines, one person’s life often depended on the next one. This has forged an incredibly strong sense of community of which I am very proud to be a part, and has given me a sense that we achieve more working together than we do on our own.”

He lives in Abersychan, “three miles from where I was brought up. I am married to Rebecca and we have two beautiful daughters: Matilda, 5, and Florence, 2. Both are fans of the Disney film, Frozen, so I am subjected to watching it repeatedly. We also have a border collie, Ellie.”

Thomas-Symonds studied politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Oxford. He observes that “whilst Oxford – rightly – seeks excellence, it is also doing great work to encourage students with a state school background to apply. As someone who has been involved in admissions, and in outreach work, over many years, this is often a problem of perception, of young people feeling ‘Oxbridge is not for me’. 

“Changing this perception, and encouraging even more talented people to apply, is totally compatible with Oxford’s ‘brightest and best’ policy.  I was delighted to play a small part in the excellent Oxbridge Ambassador for Wales project carried out by my local MP in Torfaen, Paul Murphy, the recommendations for which include the establishment of regional hubs in which groups of state schools can share experiences and support in the Oxbridge admissions process, which I have no doubt will have a positive impact, too.

His own undergraduate days were, he says, “Happy! I worked hard and also got to know a wide variety of people. In fact, I liked it so much, I have yet to leave!”

Aged just 21, he became a lecturer at Oxford. “I actually – once – taught someone I had lived with in my second year. He had taken a year out, and I taught him for a revision class. However, he dealt with it well and all was fine! I was – obviously – concerned about teaching successfully when I started, but the ability and maturity of the students made it easy for me.”

Thomas-Symonds’ Bevan study follows his 2010 book Attlee: A Life in Politics. “Being on the left politically draws me to inspirational progressive figures. I enjoy debating with those on the right, but would be less keen on a full book on a right-wing figure: if you spend a few years of your life on a biographical subject, being broadly sympathetic to their aims and values makes it a more enjoyable experience. I would like to write a biography of Harold Wilson. I am fascinated by how his governments grappled with the social changes of the 1960s and the economic challenges of the 1970s.”

What role did bravery and personal integrity play in Attlee’s and Bevan’s accomplishments? Did they do good things because they were good and brave men? 

“They did achieve great things because they were good and brave men, but for other reasons, too. Bevan was a man of conviction, but also a very talented user of power as a Cabinet minister, particularly in his lengthy negotiations with the British Medical Association which enabled the NHS to come into existence. As prime minister Attlee had a unique talent to hold together a highly talented - but also argumentative! - group of Cabinet colleagues: in short, to bring the best out of other great men.”

On the subject of politicians’ qualities, the Welsh MP Owen Smith has said that David Cameron is “unfit to lace the boots” of Aneurin Bevan. What about Tony Blair?

Thomas-Symonds responds: “David Cameron has attacked the most vulnerable in our society with the ‘bedroom tax’; his government has left hundreds of thousands of people relying on food banks; he has undermined the principles of Bevan’s NHS in England with his Health and Social Care Act 2012: Owen Smith MP was entirely right to say he is unfit to lace Nye Bevan’s boots. 

“As to what Bevan would have thought of Tony Blair: I wouldn’t try to argue that he would agree with everything, but I think it has to be remembered that Bevan was a man of idealism and pragmatism. He would have had great admiration for the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, and welcomed the Blair government’s substantial investment in the National Health Service, transforming it from the state in was left in by the Tories in 1997. Bevan was, above all, a man of power, and using power for improving people’s lives. He would have admired Blair’s three general election victories. He would not have been in any doubt that the real enemy was the Tories, and respected Blair’s political skill in regularly defeating them.”

Was he ever tempted to choose an area of law more traditionally associated with progressive politics and activism, such as labour law or human rights law? 
“I have chosen to live in my home area of Torfaen, and to commute to Cardiff to practise law. That inevitably restricts the areas of law I can specialise in compared to say, London, but I have never been tempted to move away from the Eastern Valley, to practise other areas of law, or for other reasons. Anyway, in my view all areas of the law need people with a social conscience and progressive politics.” 

Leaving aside the huge amount of work that monographs of this kind must represent, and work as a Labour Party activist, is it difficult to combine working as a barrister in Cardiff with lecturing in Oxford - be it in terms of time, travel or focus?

“Barristers are self-employed, so that gives me the flexibility to do other things. It’s important to use all your time efficiently. Having a very supportive partner is also crucial, My oldest daughter, Matilda, was born when I was writing my first book; my second daughter, Florence, was born when I was writing the second. Writing after sleepless nights was particularly challenging,” he admits.

As a Labour Party activist, what is Thomas-Symonds’ response to those on the left who see pro-business, pro-privatisation, union-unfriendly leanings in the party’s policies and actions, and who believe it no longer stands up for justice and the rights and concerns of working men and women?

“Having gone to Oxford and become a barrister myself from a working-class background, I am very passionate about social mobility, and aspiration. The Labour Party is – rightly – pro-business, but I don’t accept that it is ‘pro-privatisation” and ‘union-unfriendly’. The unions are an essential part of the Labour movement, and always have been. The Labour Party has always been a broad coalition of those committed to social justice, from 1900 when the Labour Representation Committee was formed by trade unionists together with representatives of socialist societies. The Labour Party has always been tolerant of difference and debate, and it is important to have all parts of the party represented in the Parliamentary Labour Party. 

He concludes: “I do not believe there is ever great social progress without Labour governments. Just as next May, only one of two people will become Prime Minister: David Cameron or Ed Miliband. Of those two, only Ed Miliband can deliver social justice, and improvements in the lives of working men and women.

What gives him hope? “Last week I was guest speaker at my old school’s prize evening in Pontypool. I was delighted to see that two pupils had won Oxbridge places. The talent of people in my local area gives me great hope and optimism for the future.”

Karen Shook

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