The post-war Labour government, 1945-51, now seems as remote as the Middle Ages. Its vast programme of nationalisation, its pride and boast, was entirely dismantled by Margaret Thatcher, without a single influential voice being raised in its defence. Its wisest action, itself a negative, was to give India its freedom, thereby sparing the nation much misery and ultimate shame, and it is for this that Attlee, whose decision it was, will be chiefly remembered.
But there is one exception to this story of vacuity. The National Health Service, after nearly three quarters of a century, remains, essentially unchanged, an enduring monument to this harassed and often ramshackle government. When Labour took office, in July 1945, nothing had been done, by way of preparation, for this enormous and complex piece of legislation which transformed the way in which virtually the entire nation was nursed and doctored. Yet the NHS was created with all deliberate speed, and in less than three years, by the end of 1948, it was in operation. By way of comparison, look what has happened—or not happened—to Obama-care in the US, which after six years is still largely on paper.
The man who brought about this miracle (for so it looks, in retrospect) was Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960), the Welsh miner MP. The extraordinary thing is that Attlee, in recognition of his achievement, failed to promote him, when the death of Stafford Cripps left the Treasury vacant. Instead Bevin was sidelined into the Ministry of Labour, which meant he had to spend his time arguing with trade-union officials, a species of humanity he detested. Instead, the Exchequer was given to Hugh Gaitskell, a prissy Wykehamist who earlier had covered the government in ridicule by boasting he only ran six inches of water into his bath to save fuel. Why Attlee made this calamitous mistake is a mystery: as a rule his handling of colleagues was deft. Gaitskell was a divisive figure who insisted not just on beating opponents within the party but forcing them to admit they were wrong. An explosion with Bevan was inevitable, and it came with Gaitskell’s 1951 rearmament budget, which hugely increased defence spending to equip British forces to fight the Korean War, at the expense (amid other welfare recipients) of the new NHS.
The result was the resignation of Bevan, together with two colleagues, Harold Wilson, in the Cabinet at the Board of Trade, and John Freeman, Under-Secretary at Supply. Freeman was a key figure for at Supply he realised that Gaitskell’s calculations would not work but would merely lead to inflation. As Harold Wilson put it: “Night after night, I listened to John trying to teach Nye the principles of Bevanism.” Attlee was ill at the time, and Herbert Morrison in charge of the government. He tried to tempt Freeman into withdrawing his resignation by offering him Wilson’s place in the Cabinet, but met with a contemptuous refusal. The upshot was a deep split in the government, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the movement as a whole, the loss of the 1951 election, and Labour’s banishment to impotence for the notorious “Thirteen Wasted Years”.
It is not clear whether Mr Thomas-Symonds, the author of this new biography of Bevan’s, was able to talk to Freeman, who died only recently at the age of 99. Symonds is an assiduous researcher, and particularly informative on Bevan’s early life and career. But he does not succeed in recreating Bevan as the noble giant he seemed at the time. The House of Commons was still a special place in those days, with an organic life of its own, to those who knew how to pull out the right stops. Bevan was one of that select few. He had a lot in common with Charles James Fox. Pitt the Younger, answering a younger colleague who said he failed to understand Fox’s power, said: “No, because you never sat under the wand of the magician.”
Bevan, too, had magic. In the 1950s, I used often to spend an afternoon and evening in the Commons gallery, listening and watching, especially if Bevan or Churchill spoke. Churchill was past his best, but Bevan was at his apogee: you could actually observe people change their minds under the impact of his sinewy arguments. He had an extraordinary command of the spoken word. It came from his stammer. As a child, with an overwhelming urge to express himself, he found there were a multitude of words he could not utter. He told me he ransacked dictionaries, and Roget’s Thesaurus, to find alternatives he could pronounce. Hence his extraordinary knowledge of words and their meanings, the width of his vocabulary and the mesmerising freshness of his choice of epithets and phrases, which made his speeches at times incandescent.
Bevan was a big man, with a miner’s build: strong thighs, powerful upper back and neck muscles, and thick biceps. His head was noble, and he flourished it, when roused, with angry thrusts of his neck muscles. His silver hair was thick and floppy, like the plumage of an angry cockerel, and that too was part of his oratorical display. He was in every way an aristocrat of the mining valleys, a regal figure who challenged the world to commit lèse-majesté at its peril. He wove around himself an atmosphere of noli me tangere, and he drew intellectual men and women to him like a magnet.
Bevan did not so much prepare a speech, in the way Churchill did, then learn it by heart. But he rehearsed it. He got an argument in his mind, then improved and perfected it aloud. Before his famous “Naked into the council chamber” speech of 1957, in which he rejected unilateralism—the most difficult speech of his life—he rehearsed it on the downs outside Brighton, where it was delivered, to an audience of Vicky, the cartoonist, Karol Kewes, the Polish political philosopher, and myself. He went through it three times, to get the flow of ideas exactly right. But the details were spontaneous. What made a speech by Bevan electrifying is that you did not know—he did not know himself—exactly what he was going to say, or how he would say it. The argument took hold and carried him along through a series of crashing climaxes, like a symphony by Bruckner. In the Commons, a close observer could actually see conviction stealing over the faces of those attending, an exciting process which only the greatest orators can set in motion. Equally, it was also visible when the magic failed, as it sometimes did.
I knew Bevan for five years, from 1955 to his death from stomach cancer in 1960, and he was very kind to me. He wrote a fiery introduction to my first book, on the Suez War, and put up with my impertinences and cheek in arguing with him. We had some stormy sessions together, and I think he enjoyed them hugely—I certainly did. The sheer intellectual thrill of being with him, and detonating his flow of ideas, contempt, indignation, rage and glorious verbal fireworks was uniquely stimulating and left ineffaceable echoes, though one remembers the sensations rather than the actual words. That is the trouble. Mr Symonds is not the only hardworking biographer who fails to bring Bevan to life. Michael Foot, who knew Bevan as well as anyone, similarly preached a long, two-volume sermon over a dead body. Writers have had such failures over another outstanding Welsh statesman, Lloyd George. The House of Commons is a great, historic and demanding theatre, tragic, comic and melodramatic in turn, and liable to topple over into farce and bathos without warning. Bevan was a superlative performer on this stage. But he has been dead now over half a century, and though he lives still in the memories of those few left alive who knew him, I doubt if anyone now can perform the miracle of resurrection.
Yet no one, before or since, has ever so robustly embodied the spirit of Labour, and there are times when I fancy the ghost of Nye Bevan walks the corridors of Westminster.