Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan review – lucid account of a flawed hero

As Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds’s warts-and-all biography reveals, the father of the NHS was far from being a team player

In the pantheon of Labour heroes, indeed among 20th-century politicians as a whole, Aneurin Bevan enjoys one of the foremost places. His towering achievement was the creation of the National Health Service, which he drove through in the teeth of bitter opposition from both the medical profession and the Tories. To this day his legacy – a health service available to all, free at the point of use – is the one part of the postwar consensus that has survived more or less intact the ravages of Thatcherism and the global market.

But all great men have their flaws and, as this lucid, well-researched biography concedes, Bevan’s were considerable. Although capable of pragmatism and at times courageous he could also be fractious, disloyal and self-indulgent. Arguably, his 1950 resignation from the government over the issue of charges for false teeth and spectacles contributed to the defeat of 1951 and helped to ignite a civil war that rendered Labour impotent in the early 50s. Bevan, according to one of his close friends, was not a team player.

One of 10 children (of whom only six survived to adulthood) of a south Wales miner, Bevan left school and started work at a local pit aged 13; by the age of 19, he was chairman of the local miners’ union lodge. He cut his political teeth in the turbulent politics of the south Wales mining communities where, as the author says, “meetings could be so heated that they were on the edge of physical violence”. Although initially handicapped by a slight stammer, he eventually developed into a mesmerising orator.

From an early age, he showed a capacity for pragmatism, arguing for a negotiated settlement of the 1926 miners’ strike rather than risk defeat. Entering parliament in 1929, he became an early supporter of the leftwing magazine Tribune and in 1939, along with Stafford Cripps and others, was briefly expelled from the Labour party for advocating a popular front with the anti-appeasement Tories, Liberals and communists against the rise of fascism, a position quickly vindicated.

It was not until the wartime coalition, however, that Bevan began to make a ripple on the national stage. He was one of only a relative handful of backbench MPs publicly willing to criticise Winston Churchill’s conduct of the war, which did not make him popular with either the public or the Labour leadership, who were in coalition with Churchill. In the circumstances, and considering he had no previous experience of government, Bevan was remarkably fortunate to be included in Clement Attlee’s postwar cabinet. He was an inspired choice, however. Bevan took to government like a fish to water. He knew exactly when to compromise and when to stand firm. Few of his contemporaries would have had the energy and political nerve to take on and defeat the mighty British Medical Association.

The creation of the NHS was the high point of Bevan’s career. Like Tony Benn, that other great icon of the Labour left, Bevan had a tendency to self-destruct. As Attlee once remarked: “He is apt to become airborne in the last five minutes of his speech.” Most famously, in 1947, Bevan denounced the Tories as “lower than vermin”, a faux pas that almost certainly put paid to his chances of becoming leader. Being passed over when vacancies arose for chancellor and then for foreign secretary only increased his resentment. As the author says: “Bevan was his own worst enemy.”

The civil war of the early 50s brought out the worst in Bevan. He developed a visceral loathing of Hugh Gaitskell, whom he saw as a usurper, and openly undermined Attlee despite being a member of the shadow cabinet. In February 1955 he came within one vote of expulsion from the Labour party. It was Attlee who saved him. Not that he was all that grateful. “We have to expose the futility and weakness of the little man,” he remarked to a colleague.

After the electoral defeat of 1955 and the election of Gaitskell as leader, Bevan seems to have turned over a new leaf. Reappointed to the shadow cabinet he made peace with Gaitskell and (to the dismay of his friends) reversed his position on nuclear disarmament. Had he lived, he might have been a major figure in the first Wilson cabinet. Alas, however, he died of stomach cancer, aged 62.

This is a warts and all biography, written by an Oxford academic, but mercifully free of academic jargon. It offers a balanced assessment of a complicated man. Not until the final chapter does the author reveal his hand. Bevan, he says, may have been stubborn, bloody minded, irascible, but he was a great man, “one of the outstanding cabinet ministers of the 20th century”.

Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan is published by IB Tauris (RRP £25). Click here to buy it for £20


Chris Mullin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Odd Couples: The Great Political Pairings of Modern Britain review – lively canter through a history of polar opposites
The notion that political success in postwar Britain has often been founded on unlikely alliances has a very modern resonance

Chris Mullin

13, Apr, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Dangerous Hero review – Corbyn hatchet job turns out to be blunt instrument
Tom Bower’s exposé of the Labour leader tells us almost nothing new

Stephen Bush

24, Feb, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Harold Wilson: The Winner by Nick Thomas-Symonds review – a second look at the victorious Labour leader
History has not always looked kindly on Wilson, but this elegantly written biography by a Labour MP celebrates him as a successful prime minister and the architect of social reform

Roy Hattersley

10, Oct, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life by Peter McPhee – review
Recent discoveries came too late for this biography of Robespierre but attention to his early life makes it a worthwhile study, writes Ruth Scurr

Ruth Scurr

12, Feb, 2012 @12:05 AM

Article image
Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by DR Thorpe – review
This biography of Harold Macmillan proves the use of age and experience in politics, writes Peter Preston

Peter Preston

09, Oct, 2010 @11:05 PM

Off Message: The Complete Antidote to Political Humbug by Bob Marshall-Andrews – review
The MP for Medway was rebel-in-chief for 13 suffocating years of Labour rule. Now he gets it all off his chest, writes John Kampfner

John Kampfner

11, Jun, 2011 @11:05 PM

Article image
Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life review – 'a magnificent biography'

Chris Mullin: John Campbell's compelling biography enshrines Roy Jenkins as a giant of postwar politics

Chris Mullin

23, Mar, 2014 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Churchill Factor review – Boris Johnson’s flawed but fascinating take on his hero
The mayor of London’s paean to Churchill is self-serving but spirited, writes John Kampfner

John Kampfner

03, Nov, 2014 @11:00 AM

Article image
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable – review

Black power hero Malcolm X held bizarre and contradictory beliefs – yet his popular legacy is greater than Martin Luther King's. Here at last is the meticulous portrait he deserves, says Andrew Anthony

Andrew Anthony

10, Apr, 2011 @5:00 AM

Article image
Jeremy Thorpe review – Michael Bloch’s gripping and insightful biography
Andrew Rawnsley on a gripping biography of one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary British political leaders

Andrew Rawnsley

18, Jan, 2015 @8:00 AM