Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960), Labour minister of health and housing between 1945 and 1951, was responsible for the creation of the British National Health Service. Throughout his life he fought to make Britain an independent democratic socialist nation.
Aneurin Bevan, born in 1897 in Tredegar, Wales, grew up steeped in the traditions of Welsh miners' radicalism: self-help organizations, religious dissent, trade unionism, and socialism. Unprecedented industrial unrest marked Bevan's youth. Like others of his class, his formal education ended at age 14, when he started to work in the mines. He soon became an activist and, initially, a supporter of syndicalism. An opponent of World War I, he avoided service and immersed himself in socialist and labor politics, winning a miners' scholarship to the radical Central Labour College in London.
In 1920 Bevan returned to Tredegar and to intermittent unemployment. He entered politics in 1922 when he was elected to the Tredegar Urban District Council. The early 1920s were spent dealing with the problems of long term unemployment and miners' demands for greater control over their work. During the 1926 general strike Bevan was active on miners' relief committees and became a prominent figure at union meetings. The miners' defeat caused Bevan to look more favorably upon electoral politics to achieve working-class control and socialism.
Member of Parliament
Elected Labour representative for Ebbw Vale, Bevan entered Parliament in 1929 at the time of the doomed Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald. Bevan and other left wing politicians pressed for more resolute economic action to deal with the depression and unemployment. In 1931 he criticized the formation of a "national" coalition government nominally under MacDonald but controlled by Conservatives.
From his very first years in Parliament Bevan articulated a lifelong position: he was committed to the Labour Party, but was highly critical of it—often volubly so—urging it to take more radical and socialist stands. He did not favor splitting up the party or consider becoming a Communist, but he wanted the party to be open to a wide spectrum of views. A spellbinding speaker who did not hesitate to use strong language, in the 1930s he criticized the government's and the Labour Party's inability to take a firm stand on the threat of fascism. He bemoaned Labour's failure to provide clear support to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and supported the formation of a popular front to unite Communists, socialists, and Labourites against fascism and the national government's appeasement of Hitler. In the late 1930s, along with other figures on the left of the Labour Party such as Stafford Cripps, Harold Laski, and Ellen Wilkinson, Bevan also was active in an independent Left publication, Tribune. Bevan's 1934 marriage to Jennie Lee, a Scottish socialist and Labour politician in her own right, provided emotional and political support in those troubled years.
World War II did not quiet Bevan's criticism. After Winston Churchill took over, Bevan was a loyal supporter of the wartime coalition. But he did not believe that the war should end all political discussion. Accordingly, he criticized Churchill for not forming a second front to aid the Russians and castigated the Labour Party for not pressing hard enough for socialist domestic policies. These opinions he expressed both in Parliament and in the Tribune, whose editor he became in 1942.
As the war drew to a close, Bevan argued that Britain should not participate in dividing the world into hostile Communist and non-Communist camps. European nations, particularly, should be free to form independent, democratic socialist governments. He also pressed for the continuation of public control of vital industries and the development of a comprehensive system of social services. Labour's 1945 landslide victory brought Bevan into the cabinet as minister of health and housing. This, combined with his membership on the Labour Party executive since 1944, placed him in a key position to shape the nature of post-war Britain.
National Health Service
The creation of the National Health Service probably was Bevan's greatest achievement, brought about by his unswerving commitment to a comprehensive, free, and high quality service and his sophisticated ability to cut through knotty political and administrative problems. Encountering strong opposition—particularly from doctors fearing that they would be turned into civil servants with little professional independence (and lower incomes)—the Health Service did not go into effect until 1948, but it soon had 93.1 percent of the population participating and doctors' general cooperation. Bevan was less successful in the area of housing. He was plagued by financial and material shortages and refused to compromise quality. Nevertheless, 1,016,349 permanent houses were built between 1945 and 1951.
From 1945 to 1950 Labour ministers worked together, notwithstanding debates and disagreements between the left and right wings of the party. The atmosphere changed in 1951 when an ambitious and costly arms program was launched, part of the growing Cold War. To fund this program, the new chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, proposed charging fees for spectacles and dentures. Bevan believed that any dilution of the principle of a totally free and comprehensive service set a dangerous precedent. He particularly opposed the introduction of fees to fund the Cold War. When fees were imposed anyway, Bevan resigned from the government, where he held the post of minister of labour.
In late 1951 Conservatives came to power, and for the rest of Bevan's life—he died in 1960—the Labour Party was in opposition. Bevan served as the leader of a left wing faction, the "Bevanites," arguing against rearmament and for an independent socialist foreign policy in Europe and the Third World, in opposition to the more conservative "Gaitskellites." The frequently acrimonious contest between the two groups was carried out through Tribune, in the press and Parliament, and on the national executive of the Labour Party. Bevan had the support of constituency parties, but was opposed by many important trade union leaders. Bevan shaped and often dominated Labour politics at this time, but Gaitskell and the moderates triumphed.
In his last years, however, Bevan and Gaitskell united to argue against the Conservative handling of the Suez crisis. He also backed Gaitskell in arguing that Britain should not abandon the hydrogen bomb. Bevan had fought to set limits on Britain's development of nuclear weapons, but did not join many of his followers in the growing antinuclear movement. He died, therefore, as he had lived, fighting hard for the things he believed in even if it meant alienating followers and friends.
Further Reading on Aneurin Bevan
A comprehensive two volume biography is Michael Foot's Aneurin Bevan (1962, 1973). Jennie Lee's autobiographical memoir This Great Journey (1963) and her My Life with Nye (1981) are also useful. Bevan published one book of essays, In Place of Fear (1952). Two good general works are Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972) and Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour in Power (1984).
Additional Biography Sources
Campbell, John, Aneurin Bevan and the mirage of British socialism, New York: Norton, 1987.
Campbell, John, Nye Bevan and the mirage of British socialism, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.