Aneurin Bevan and the Socialist Ideal

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Aneurin Bevan was the leading postwar representative in Britain of the socialist ideal. He is best remembered for the creation of the National Health Service which he regarded as a symbol of applied socialism, a national service free at the point of use and available to all. But, even before he resigned from the postwar Labour government in 1951, this ideal was being eroded. Were his hopes doomed to disappointment?

This is a part of the lecture series, Making the Weather: Six politicians who shaped our age.
Winston Churchill wrote of Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary at the beginning of the 20th century, that, even though he never became Prime Minister, he 'made the weather', meaning that he played a crucial role in shaping the political agenda of his day. These lectures discuss six postwar politicians, none of whom became Prime Minister, but who, like Joseph Chamberlain, also made the weather and so helped to shape the age in which we live.

The other lectures in this series are as follows:
    Iain Macleod and Decolonialisation
    Roy Jenkins, Europe and the Civilised Society
    Enoch Powell and the Sovereignty of Parliament
    Tony Benn and the Idea of Participation
    Sir Keith Joseph and the Market Economy

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16 October 2012

Aneurin Bevan and the Socialist Ideal

Professor Vernon Bogdanor

Ladies and gentlemen, I was given the idea for these lectures by someone who came to the last set, for which I’m very grateful, and I was asked “Why don’t you give some lectures about great politicians, interesting politicians, who never became Prime Minister?” and I thought that was a very good idea. So, this is the first of six lectures called “Making the Weather”.

Now, the phrase “making the weather” comes from Winston Churchill, who said of Joseph Chamberlain, who was Colonial Secretary at the beginning of the 20th Century, that he “made the weather”, and what he meant by that was that he’d set the agenda which other politicians followed. So, although Joseph Chamberlain never became Prime Minister, perhaps he left a greater mark on history than many Prime Ministers and is remembered more than many who became Prime Minister.

So, these lectures are going to discuss six post-War politicians who did not become Prime Minister, but arguably had more impact than many who did. Now, I wonder who will be more remembered by history: Aneurin Bevan, whom I’m going to talk about today, the creator of the National Health Service, or James Callaghan, who was Prime Minister; Enoch Powell, who’s another of my choices, or Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who was Prime Minister?

Now, one of the six that I’m going to be talking about was hardly in office at all: Enoch Powell held Cabinet office for just 15 months; and one other, Sir Keith Joseph, was widely regarded as a rather ineffective Minister. But other people, including Aneurin Bevan, the subject of today’s lecture, Iain Macleod, the subject of the next one, and Roy Jenkins, the subject for a later one, they exerted influence because of what they did as well as what the stood for. Now, you may think what they stood for was good, or you may think it was bad, but I think you’d find it difficult to deny that they had influence and that their influence came not only from what they did but from what they doubt.

Now, one of my six politicians, Tony Benn – he’s the only one of the six, incidentally, who’s still alive – he once said that he’d put down a bill for debate in the House of Commons which would, at a stroke, repeal every single legislative measure passed by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. But he said, even if that was passed, which of course it could not be, he said it would have little effect because, he said, “Margaret Thatcher’s influence came not primarily from her legislation, from what she did, but from what she taught,” even though Benn believed that most of what Margaret Thatcher taught was harmful. Benn then went on to say that what the left had lacked was a teacher, that it had not had a teacher since Aneurin Bevan.

Now, I think all six of my subjects were great teachers, though, as I say, you may not agree with what they taught. Indeed, I think no one could agree with all six of them because they taught very different things!

I’ve chosen three politicians of the right and three of the left, and my first, today, is a man of the left, Aneurin Bevan, who was, as I will try and show, a great man of government. He was a member of the 1945 Atlee Government for nearly six years, but also a great teacher, and I think his significance was two-fold: first, what he did in Government, creating the National Health Service; but secondly, what he stood for as a prime spokesman in post-War Britain for the socialist ideal.

But I think he was in one way unique amongst the six in one respect, in that he not only taught people and made them think, but he also made them feel, and in that, I think he had something in common with Churchill. Now, Churchill, in 1940, did not owe his appeal to the strength of his arguments, but to the fact that he expressed the feeling of the British people that they were not prepared to surrender to Hitler. Famously, in 1954, on his 80th birthday, Churchill said the British people were the lions but he had the privilege to give the roar. Bevan, I think, expressed feelings in the same way, made people feel as well as making them think.

But his early years gave no hint of what was to come. He was born in 1897 in Tredegar in South Wales, a mining village, to a mining family. He was one of 10 children, only six of whom lived to adulthood, which wasn’t I think wholly unusual in those days.

Now, he was very poor by modern standards, but his family was not amongst the poorest in the standards of the Welsh mining villages at that time. He did not live in a slum, and in 1906, his father managed to buy a house for the family. His father was a miner, a Welsh-speaking member of the chapel, who enjoyed choral singing, was a voracious reader, and enjoyed writing poetry in his spare time. Bevan inherited his father’s love for reading and, to some extent, his interest in music, but he never learnt Welsh.

Bevan’s education was fairly rudimentary. He was not thought the intellectual of the family, and even his mother, who was very ambitious, did not suggest that he should try for secondary school because no one thought he’d pass the Eleven Plus examination, which his sister in fact did. Bevan left school at 13, after a very undistinguished school career, and part of the reason for this was that he suffered from a stammer, something that he had in common with George VI and was to prove a bond between them when Bevan became a Minister in the post-War years. Bevan also had a lisp, something that he had in common with Churchill, and perhaps for this reason, he was very much bullied by his schoolmaster and also by his fellow pupils. Now, to avoid the embarrassment of the stammer, what he did was to consult a dictionary and a thesaurus to discover synonyms for words that he could only pronounce with difficulty, so he would avoid difficult words. That, I think, in part, accounts for the very wide vocabulary of his speeches when he became a Minister – this search enlarged his vocabulary.

I’ll give you an example from a debate in 1949, a debate on the Health Service. Bevan was rebuking the Conservative opposition for pouring scorn on the Health Service and being a bit miserable about it. He said, “What’s happened to them?!” He said, “They used to represent themselves as a jocund Party.” An Honourable Member said, “What?!” Bevan said, “They cannot understand English now! I will give them a clue: “How jocund did they drive their team afield!”” but people didn’t recognise it came from Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” and it means sprightly and light-hearted, but it was a word he used so he wouldn’t have to use the words he found difficult to pronounce.

He would also use, sometimes I think as an affectation, his stammer to great effect. In that same debate, he was due to reply to Churchill, who made a typical rhetorical speech attacking the Labour Government and all its works and so on, and Bevan, when he got up, said, and I can’t unfortunately imitate his Welsh accent – you’ll hear that on when we’ve got him speaking – but this was in the House of Commons and of course it wasn’t then recorded. He said: “I welcome this opportunity,” he said, looking at Churchill who was rather overweight, “of pricking this bloated bladder of lies with the poniard of truth,” but when he said “poniard”, “p-p-poniard” of truth, and had therefore a great effect.

At a later stage, at a Labour Party Conference in 1957, he was opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament, which he said would send the Labour Foreign Secretary naked into the Conference Chamber, and he said: “And you call that statesmanship?! I call it an emotional spasm!” and on the word “ss-pp-asm”, he said it like that, so it had much more effect.

And he forced himself, even as a youth, to speak in public to overcome this disability. His friend, Michael Foot, once said, “How did you cure your stammer, Nye?” and Bevan said, “By torturing my audiences.” That was an early sign of the strength of his will.

He became a very fine speaker, second only to Churchill I think, as a parliamentary speaker, some would say equal to or even better, but they both of them commanded the Commons, both self-educated – of course neither went to university.

Now, at the age of 13, Bevan went down the mines, at a wage of 10 shillings a week, and he worked in the mines for nine years. But he was determined to educate himself, and Harold Wilson once said that he was the best educated man he ever met. His favourite authors in later life, he said, were Thomas Jefferson, Jack London, the French novelist Stendhal, and H.G. Wells. Now, one weekend in 1950, to get relaxation from Government, he went with Michael Foot to Stratford to spend the weekend to see Sir John Gielgud in “King Lear” and Peggy Ashcroft in “As You Like It”. After the performances, Bevan gave a talk to the theatre directors, headed by Anthony Quale, on the errors made by some critics of Shakespeare, which people found impressive.

Now, in 1919, Bevan won a scholarship for two years to attend the Central Labour College in London, and he found that tedious. He thought they weren’t teaching enough left-wing theory and particularly they weren’t teaching Marxism, and he joined a breakaway left-wing group from the Central Labour College. I hardly dare tell you what it was called – it was called the Plebs League!

It had been founded by a South Wales miner, and Bevan contributed an article to its journal, which was called “Plebs”, analysing the Communist Manifesto, and Bevan, in that article, announced himself a Marxist, in the sense that he believed in class conflict, but he said that Marx had underestimated the role of political democracy with a fully developed franchise and that the emancipation of the working class could therefore be achieved not by a revolution but by Parliament. Bevan used to say the most revolutionary force in the world was parliamentary democracy.

What his Marxism really amounted to was simply this: that since the working class constituted a majority in society, under democracy, society would move towards socialism because the working class as a whole would be socialist, and socialism, in his view, was a form of society based on fellowship and ethical living and was best secured by State planning and by public ownership.

Now, though influenced by Marxism, Bevan always believed the only possible vehicle for socialism was the Labour Party. He was never attracted by any splinter socialist movement, such as the Communist Party or the Independent Labour Party, which broke off from the Labour Party in 1932, and he dissuaded his wife from joining that breakaway. He said, even though he admitted and accepted the Labour Party was not particularly committed to socialism, he said the Labour Party must be converted and, near the end of his life, in 1959, he said to a friend, “The left is very weak.” He said, “Not more than about 50 MPs, one-fifth of the Party, are socialists.” He said it was dominated by Hugh Gaitskell, his great opponent, and what he called his “clique of statisticians”. He said, “There’s no other instrument.” He said, “Though I know that, sometimes I don’t know how I could stay in the Labour Party - it isn’t really a socialist party at all.” But he still, he did, he never thought of leaving the Labour Party – it had to be converted.

Now, after these two years in London at the Central Labour College, he went back to Wales, back to the mines, and gradually went into local politics, became a member of his urban district council and then his county council, and he would probably have remained I think a miners’ leader, a trade union leader, had it not been for an extraordinary stroke of luck.

Now, at that time, the safe seats in South Wales were usually given to a trade union man upon retirement, as a kind of reward for good service in the trade unions, so you didn’t become an MP till quite late. But he had a stroke of luck in the constituency in which he lived of Ebbw Vale that the existing MP, Evan Davis, was being deselected, not on ideological grounds but because he was just a poor MP – he didn’t reply to constituents’ letters, he never came to meetings, and so on and so on. There as a ballot, at which Evan Davis and five others stood, including Bevan, and Bevan won, and this meant that he had a safe seat for life. He was elected in 1929, the MP for Ebbw Vale, huge majorities – indeed, in some elections, he wasn’t even opposed by a Conservative, and so he had no trouble with his parliamentary constituency.

He established his reputation, early on, as a left-wing Labour MP, radical critic of a national government, and so radical indeed, he was expelled from the Labour Party in January 1939, with another future leading figure, Sir Stafford Cripps, who became Chancellor after the War, but readmitted at the end of the year.

During the War, the time of the all-party truce, Bevan, again, was a left-wing critic of the Government, particularly of Churchill, who called him “a squalid nuisance” at the time, and therefore it was a great surprise when, in 1945, he was appointed Minister of Health by Attlee. He was one of only two Cabinet Ministers who had not been in the Wartime Coalition Government to be given office – everyone else in the Cabinet was given office, so it was a surprise. Bevan was also the youngest member of the Cabinet. Now, he wasn’t young by modern standards – he was 47. That’s younger than David Cameron is now, and George Osborne is 42, and other Ministers, I think some of them are even younger. But, by the standards of that period, he was very young. The average age of the Attlee Government was well over 60, and you may reflect on that - it was, after all, a very successful Government…

Now, even more remarkable, he was given the crucial position of Minister of Health, where he remained for over five years, by far the longest tenure since the Ministry had been created by Lloyd George in 1919. This was a great risk, people thought. Bevan had never been in government before. His reputation was only as an extreme left-wing critic.

Churchill greeted him in Parliament by saying that unless he changed his view, he could be “as great a curse to his country in time of peace as he was a squalid nuisance in time of war”.

But he rapidly proved himself, to the surprise of many. Looking at it purely administratively and forgetting political debate for the moment, a first-class Minister, and his Permanent Secretary said he was the best Minister he’d ever served, and the Principal Assistant Secretary primarily responsible for the Health Service, a man called John Pater, agreed with that. John Pater, incidentally, wrote a very good book on the founding of the Health Service, which does give a lot of plaudits to Bevan.

And this is an important point that I want to make about Bevan, because he’s often remembered today I think as a firebrand or a rebel, but I think his main achievement is a man of government, and in a sense, it’s a tragedy for the Labour Party that he had only six years in Government and spent most of his life in opposition. He was a fine Minister because he could concentrate on essentials. The main principles of any problem, he would work out, and then he’d delegate to the Civil Service the details, get them to implement it, and he’d always stimulate them to do the work and always backed them up, and he was very creative, exactly the sort of Minister that civil servants like. He didn’t interfere with detail; he got the main outlines, as we’ll see with the Health Service, and told them to get on with it.

Now, the Ministry of Health was a crucial position at that time because it was generally agreed that there was going to be a Health Service of some sort, the existing system being very much of a patchwork.

Now, the system then was based on what had been created by Lloyd George in 1911, and it was an insurance system, in which you got a sickness benefit and free treatment from a panel doctor. But that covered only those in work, except for a small maternity grant for women. There was no cover for the self-employed, nor for dependents – that’s women and children – and by 1938, it covered just 43% of the population. The rest were not covered by insurance.

Now, since it was an insurance system, it wasn’t clear what happened to you when you’d used up all your benefits. If your illness remained, you presumably had to pay for further treatment. It was also very limited because it did not cover hospital or specialist treatment, except tuberculosis, only treatment under a General Practitioner.

Now, the hospital system, in case you needed specialist treatment, was also a patchwork, and there were two kinds of hospitals at that time. Some of them were municipal hospitals, run by a local authority, some of them excellent. For example, the London County Council ran a very good hospital service, with 75,000 beds. It was perhaps, at that time, the largest hospital authority in the world. But some other local authorities weren’t as good. And, for the hospitals, you paid on a means-tested basis, though some local authorities provided free treatment to rate payers. Now, the poorer local authorities, almost by definition, couldn’t provide as good a service as the larger and better ones, and so the service was uneven. And there was a further weakness: it was alleged that local councillors got their relatives and friends admitted before other people, so that, you know, if you knew a local councillor, you were more likely to get a hospital place than if you didn’t. So that was one set of hospitals, the municipal hospitals, run by local authorities.

The second set were voluntary hospitals, which were financed by contributions, though those were in such difficulty that, by the end of the War, about over 80% of them were funded from public money. Now, many of those hospitals were very small. 70% of them had fewer than 30 beds, and therefore couldn’t really deal with important illnesses. In his speech introducing the Health Service, Bevan answered those who gave you the merits of localism and community and he said, “I would rather be kept alive in the efficient, if cold, altruism of a large hospital than expire in a gush of sympathy in a small one.” And, again, the distribution of these hospitals was also haphazard, and they found it difficult to keep up with the pace of technical advance, and they used to have flag days to raise money and seek money from people who were getting treatment. They used to ask for contributions.

There was one particularly shocking story, I think, of a mother, a pregnant mother, who was entering hospital and was asked if she could make a contribution, and she said unfortunately she couldn’t because she didn’t have very much money and what she had, she’d need for the baby. Now, the baby was stillborn, and they then said, “Well, you won’t be needing that money now – can you contribute it instead to the hospital?” so that wasn’t a very happy situation.

Now, in my opinion, though I think I’m in a minority amongst historians, Lloyd George took the view that his national insurance system was a stage towards a national health service, and he said, in 1911, to his Private Secretary: “Insurance necessarily temporary expedient. At no distant date, hope State will acknowledge full responsibility in the matter of making provision for sickness, breakdown and unemployment. Insurance will then be unnecessary.” I think Lloyd George would have favoured a State service – he was dead by the time it was introduced, though, interestingly enough, his last vote in the House of Commons, in 1943, was against the Government and in favour of the immediate implementation of the Beveridge Report.

But, at any rate, by the time that the Labour Government came to office, it was generally agreed you had to have a medical service of some sort, because many people were asking themselves, “Can we afford to go to the doctor? Can we afford the operation we need?” So there was general agreement, and I think cutting across the parties, that you need a health service, but not on what health service it should be.

Now, Bevan was very forceful on this. He said that the most important thing was that a person ought not to be financially deterred from seeking medical assistance at the earliest possible stage, and therefore that involved creating an entirely new service and not a mere extension and adaptation of what existed, and so he said, instead of the insurance qualification, you must have a universal health service, based on general taxation, funded out of taxation. Bevan said this would be good for the rich as well as the poor because he said, “What more pleasure can a millionaire have than to know that his taxes will help the sick?” He said, “I know how enthusiastic they have always been in following that up.” And he said, “The redistributive aspect of the scheme was one which attracted me almost as much as the therapeutical,” so it wasn’t merely medical, it was a way of redistributing. He said, “You cannot have the insurance principle because you can’t give different types of treatment in respect of different order of contributions. You can’t perform a second-class operation on a patient if he is not quite paid-up.” So, you have a universal service, paid out of taxation, and available to all, and that would include not just the General Practitioner service, as under the insurance system, but also specialist service, hospitals, eye treatment, spectacles, dental treatment and hearing facilities. So, there are two aspects: first, the comprehensive, free and universal health service; and secondly, the form of redistribution of income in the method of financing it. So that was the first thing.

Then, what were you to do with the hospitals? He said the voluntary hospitals were “repugnant to the civilised community, for hospitals to have to rely upon private charity”. He said, “I have always felt a shudder of repulsion when I have seen nurses and sisters who ought to be at their work, and students who ought to be at their work, going about the streets collecting money for the hospitals.” So, the voluntary hospitals had to be taken over, but should they be taken over by local authorities or by Central Government? He said it couldn’t be local authorities – they were too poor and too small, so you had to try and universalise the best so that every citizen had a similar standard of service. That could not be done through a rate-borne institution which meant the poor authority would not be able to match the rich one. There’d be too many anomalies and, where the services were most needed, the money would not be available. So, his second decision - it was a universal, free comprehensive service, the first decision – the second decision, a key one, was to nationalise the hospitals, to bring them under the authority of the Minister of Health responsible to Parliament.

Now, some parts of it would remain with local authorities. The public health system and school medical services, and maternity and child welfare, would be in the health centres, which would remain with local government, as it did until 1974, when a further reform put them also with the centre.

Then, finally, the question of how General Practitioners would be paid, and the General Practitioners were very hostile to a full salaried service, of the kind that teachers had, and Bevan agreed with that. He said, “The payment of a doctor must be, in some degree, a reward for zeal and there must be some degree of punishment for lack of it.” So, there was a small basic salary, but the main source of money was a capitation fee based on the number of patients you attracted.

So, I sum it up: a free and equal system, open to all; no one had to opt in or contribute and anyone could opt out. Bevan said that, just as the 19th Century had secured constitutional and political rights, this was securing a basic social right to citizenship. Here, if our technician is on the ball, we can hear Aneurin Bevan, in the 1950s, some years after the Health Service, emphasising the central principles of the Health Service which he saw as a form of applied socialism.

[Recording plays]

Now, I’m not sure Bevan did actually see the Health Service as socialist rather than a step towards socialism. The Socialist Medical Association was dissatisfied with it because they wanted a full-time salaried medical service, as with teachers, and they didn’t like the concessions that Bevan made to the doctors. They wanted the abolition of paid-beds in National Health hospitals and indeed the abolition of private medicine entirely. Now, I think the British Medical Association and the Royal Colleges would never have accepted a Health Service on that basis.

But Bevan had a strong reason for allowing paid-beds to continue in public hospitals. He said, if you don’t do that, if you do allow consultants to do that work, there’ll be a rash of private nursing homes and you’ll have a dual system, as you have in education, with a separate system of public schools and the State system, and the State system will be seen as second-class. He said you don’t want that, and he said, “If the State owned the theatre, it would not charge the same prices for the different seats. The State will provide, for example, a certain amount of dentistry free, but if a person wants to have his teeth filled with gold, the State will not provide that.” So, that was his argument, but the Socialist Medical Association didn’t like it, and I think this shows that Bevan was…he was seen as a socialist brand, but he was actually a practical man of government, who didn’t let, if you like, ideological principles stand in the way of getting a good Health Service off the ground.

Now, it’s often said – and this is a criticism made of Bevan, I think a false one – that he believed that, with the backlog of bad healthcare cleared up, the costs would fall. On the contrary, Bevan rather hoped that, as dissatisfaction with the Health Service grew, costs would rise and it would get better. He said, when it was introduced, “The Minister of Health,” one of his famous remarks, “will be the whipping boy for the Health Service in Parliament. Every time a maid kicks over a bucket of slops in a ward, an agonised wail will go through Whitehall. After the new service is introduced, there will be a cacophony of complaints. For a while, it will appear that everything is going wrong. As a matter of fact, everything will be going right because people will be able effectively to complain. They complain now, but nobody heeds them. What the Health Act will do is to put a megaphone in the mouth of every complainant so that he will be heard all over the country, and as the months go on and the limelight of publicity is brought to bear upon every aspect of the Health Service, for a while it will be almost intolerable, but this public scrutiny will have a medicinal effect.”

And then he said, in a later debate, in 1958 in Parliament, “When people are talking about the cost of the National Health Service, I hope they take into account the fact that the service has a column, a secret, silent column which never appears in the balance sheet. That comprises the enormous number of people who are back at work and who would not be there had they not received hospital treatment.”

Now, there’s another false criticism I think that people make, that he separated the curative services from the preventative services, and I think that was inevitable if the hospitals were to be nationalised, and I think Bevan was right, that local authorities then weren’t strong enough to sustain a hospital service, but you weren’t obviously going to nationalise also housing and education, so you had to separate them, and so that seems to me another false criticism.

But I think the main criticism, which many people would certainly make today, is that the Service has become too centralised and too remote and that, contrary to what Bevan thought, patients and users do find it difficult to get their complaints actually heard – it’s too bureaucratic.

Now, Nye Bevan, as we can see, he was a great centralist, and although he was Welsh, he was hostile to devolution. When, in 1944, Parliament introduced a Welsh Day, Bevan was scornful of it. He said, “Sheep don’t change their character when they cross the border from England to Wales.” He said, “If a person’s ill, it doesn’t matter whether he or she lives in England or in Wales, their needs are just the same.” He didn’t want to break-up, as were, the pressures for reform by devolution, what would now be called a postcode lottery, that service would be different in different parts of the country. He said, “The basic principle of socialism is that the treatment you get should be based on your needs and not where you live.” That, I think, was something the Labour Government then agreed with, a basic principle of the Welfare State. So, he resisted calls to create a Welsh Health Service, a Scottish Health Service, and so on – he said it was the National Health Service.

Now, was it really as responsive as he said, putting a megaphone in the mouth of every complainant? I suspect most people here would say, well, it isn’t actually quite like that – it’s a bit more bureaucratic and remote. So that’s a criticism, but still…

It was the first health system in the world to offer free medical care to the entire population, the first comprehensive system to be based not on the insurance principle but on national provision available to all and funded out of taxation, and, very quickly, there was a large degree of satisfaction with it. 98% of General Practitioners joined it, and surveys shortly after it was set up had a satisfaction rate amongst the public of 89%.

Now, although, as I’ve said, the principle of a Health Service was agreed, the actual methods Bevan used was not, and the Conservative Opposition, I think to their regret and misjudgement, voted against the Second and Third Readings. I’ll read you the Conservative amendment to the Second Reading. This was the main criticism of the Bill: “That this House, while wishing to establish a comprehensive Health Service, declines to give a second reading to a Bill which prejudices the patient’s right to an independent family doctor,” because, as I said, it would take away your choice of doctor – “which retards the development of hospital service by destroying local ownership, and gravely menaces all charitable foundations by diverting to purposes other than those intended by the donors the trust funds of the voluntary hospitals, and weakens the responsibility of local authorities without planning the Health Service as a whole.”

And, on the Third Reading said that they’d decline to give a Third Reading to a Bill, “…which discourages voluntary effort and association, mutilates the structure of local government, dangerously increases ministerial power and patronage, appropriates trust funds and benefactions in contempt of the wishes of doctors and subscribers, and undermines the freedom and independence of the medical profession to the detriment of the nation.”

Now, the British Medical Association, representing the General Practitioners, were also hostile to the Health Service. Some of them said rather extreme things. Dr Alfred Cox, a senior member of the British Medical Association, who’d been Medical Secretary at the time of the Lloyd George reforms, said, “I have examined the Bill, and it looks to me uncommonly like the first step, and a big one, towards national socialism as practised in Germany.” He said, “The medical service there was early put under the dictatorship of the medical Fuhrer. This Bill will establish the Minister of Health in that capacity.”

Now, the things the doctors feared were a full-time salaried service, the ending of clinical freedom, the ending of patient choice – I think they were all absurd. Bevan had no intention of attacking that, and I think everyone would agree they are safeguarded by the Health Service, that all these things are preserved. The Health Service has become, as someone said, an American political scientist said, as early as 1960, “part of the British constitution”, and a former Chancellor of the Exchequer who wanted to reform it, Nigel Lawson, said it was “the nearest the British had to a religion”. He said, “They don’t believe in God, but they believe in the National Health Service.” I think it’s true that any Government which sought to undermine the foundations would be in terrible electoral trouble. Whatever criticisms you wish to make of it, I think it is a…for better or worse – people have different views – a sacred cow, in that sense.

Now, Bevan was not only Minister of Health. At that time, health was associated with housing, so that Bevan was also Minister of Health and Housing, and his record there used to be very strongly criticised, but I think it’s a better record than is usually suggested, if one remembers the great shortage of materials. Bevan succeeded in building 800,000 council houses during his period of office, and it’s worth noting he took the view that council houses should be lived in by all sections of the community. He said, “Segregation by social class in housing is a wholly evil thing,” and he hoped he was building, through the council house programme, a socialist future in which all could share.

In the Attlee Government, he was the strong supporter of a very tough foreign policy. He strongly favoured British participation in the Korean War, on grounds of collective security, and it’s worth remembering he was a member of the Cabinet which agreed that Britain should become an independent nuclear power and make the atomic bomb, and he took the view you can be a socialist, you can be far on the left, but still a patriot, in foreign policy.

Now, the Health Service was to be inaugurated on the 6th of July 1948, and just the day before that, Bevan made a speech which got him into terrible trouble. It’s the equivalent of Andrew Mitchell’s “plebs” remark. He was rather annoyed because Attlee made a radio broadcast in which he’d paid tribute to all parties for the development of the Health Service. Now, Bevan was furious about this because said, “The Conservatives opposed it in Parliament!” He said, “I had a lot of trouble with them and you shouldn’t say that.”

But Attlee’s tactics, I think, were very shrewd. I read in the Times this morning that Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, said his grandfather had told him, “If you’re going to make radical speeches, do so in a suit!” Now, Attlee’s tactics were to persuade people to accept quite radical changes by minimising their radicalism and showing great respect, some would say exaggerated respect, for traditional institutions and not rocking the boat, and that wasn’t Bevan’s line.

He made a speech in Manchester, in which he said this. He said that, “We now have the moral leadership of the world,” roughly what he said there, but he said that they weren’t supported by the Conservatives and he said, “What was Toryism except “organised spivery”?” and he then reminisced about the inter-War years of unemployment. He said he’d been unemployed himself for a while, and he’d lived on his sister’s earnings, and he said it had been suggested he might emigrated, and a friend of his had emigrated to the dominions, and then he made these remarks, which really caused a lot of damage, I think. He said, “That is why no amount of cajolery and no attempt at ethical or social seduction can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred of the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned, they are lower than vermin.” It was “the vermin speech”, and “vermin” is a word like “plebs”, I think. “They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation.” He said, “I warn you, they have not changed, or if they have, they are slightly worse than they were.”

Now, Churchill, in reply, made a speech at Woodford, in which he said that the Minister of Health should be renamed the Minister of Disease, “…since morbid hatred is a form of mental disease”. He said, “I can think of no better step to signalise the inauguration of the National Health Service than that a person who so obviously need psychiatric attention should be among the first of its patients.”

Young Conservatives began to form what they called “Vermin Clubs” to get their…

It led to a rebuke from Attlee. It led to the following letter, which I will read to you, and I think a very fair letter.

My dear Aneurin,

I have received a great deal of criticism of the passage in your speech in which you describe the Conservatives as vermin, including a good deal from your own Party. It was, I think, singularly ill-timed. It had been agreed that we wished to give the new scheme as good a send-off as possible and, to this end, I made a non-polemical broadcast. Your speech cut right across this. I had myself done as much as I could to point out the injustice of the attacks made upon you for your handling of the doctors, pointing out the difficulties experienced by your predecessors of various political colours in dealing with the profession. You won a victory in obtaining their tardy cooperation, but these unfortunate remarks enable the doctors to stage a comeback and have given the general public the impression that there was more to their case than they had supposed. This is, I think, a great pity because, without doing any good, it has drawn attention away from the excellent work you have done over the Health Bill. Please be a bit more careful, in your own interest.

Yours ever,


It’s possible that these remarks cost him promotion because he certainly very much wanted, and I think you’d agree merited, promotion to a key position in the Government, and it’s fair to say that Attlee didn’t handle him very well, that he denied him promotion to the Foreign Office or the Exchequer, and indeed, Bevan’s demands were quite moderate. He said he really wanted the Colonial Office because he said the relationships between the developed and developing countries were a key issue in the years to come and he wanted to be there, but he said Attlee told a colleague that he thought Bevan was too colour-prejudiced, pro-black and anti-white, and therefore he wouldn’t put him in that position, and he made him Minister of Labour instead, which was not a happy position for Bevan and it brought him into conflict with the trade unions.

At this point, when he’d already moved from the Health Service, the question of Health Service charges rose.

Now, with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Britain engaged in a crash rearmament programme and the question arose of how this was to be paid for. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, a great opponent of Bevan’s, said these were to be paid for by charges for false teeth and spectacles. Bevan said he couldn’t accept that, that this was a matter of principle, and he’d resign if they were introduced.

This did raise for him a very important issue, and it was this: you shouldn’t bring into the Health Service, any more than you could help, what he called “capitalist incentives” because he said that breeds the acquisitive sense which he didn’t want to encourage. He said the problem faced by socialists can’t be met by the sorts of measures that Gaitskell had in mind. He said the problem faced by socialists was this: that hitherto, you’d achieved…a capitalist society had worked through fear; now, with full employment, that had diminished, fear – people no longer feared they would lose their job; and similarly, because you had a great deal of rationing and austerity and fair shares, the acquisitive motive had also been reduced – you couldn’t buy the goods in the shops and taxation was very high. So, there were no jobs to lose and there were no goods to buy. What motive then can get people to produce…to do things? He said that socialists had to create what he called “a new kind of authoritarian society, where the authority of moral purpose is freely undertaken”. He said, “If people believe in the collective,” he said, “they will do the things you want them to do.” He gave an example from the coal industry, where absenteeism was down, production was up, there was voluntary wage restraint, and people were accepting that wages could be held down to save resources for investment and for export, and that, if you trusted people, on that basis, people would act responsibly, and he said people were acting responsibly in the Health Service – they weren’t misusing it, but they were being punished if you had charges for…were being treated as if they weren’t responsible, and that was fundamentally wrong. Now, you may say there are also personal factors here, that there was a battle for the leadership going on, that he was resentful of Gaitskell and so on, but at any rate, Bevan lost that battle and resigned from the Government in April 1951, though, in a sense, he won the battle because charges in the Health Service are comparatively modest, there are many exemptions, and they form a comparatively small proportion of Health Service revenue. Whether he was right or wrong to resign, he did so clumsily, and he gave the impression he wasn’t a team player and, in fact, he would never hold office again, and nor did Hugh Gaitskell – they wasted, in some ways, their best years, in the wilderness.

As the 1950s went on, it seemed that Bevan was quite wrong because this “moral authority” he was talking about disappeared with the growth of the affluent society, and people naturally desired more consumer goods and so on. Now, Bevan said the affluent society was wrong, that you had, in the famous words of American economist J.K. Galbraith, “private affluence and public squalor”, and what was actually happening - was society going the other way, working class solidarity being eroded by the growth of affluence and individualism.

When Bevan died, in 1960, a Conservative MP wrote in the Evening Standard that: “He was the last of the demagogues. In the coalfields from which he came, Marx and Engels have been supplanted by Marks & Spencer, and the sound of class war is being drowned by the hum of the spin-dryer. There will be no more Aneurin Bevans.”

Bevan himself seemed to see that. Just before the Election of 1959, someone who was going round the country with him kept a diary, and Bevan said, “You see what’s happening? Things are passing us all by – it’s going the other way.” He said: “History gave the British working class the chance and they didn’t take it. Now, it’s probably too late. The great chances in the world will take place in spite of them. They will be carried forward with the momentum, but as far as stirring the British working class into pioneering action, it’s not so much it may not be possible, it no longer matters all that much.” But then he said: “There is always the unknown factor. You must carry on that if there’s a chance of winning or at least of doing something.” What he was saying was that there was a time, so it seemed, when Britain could have become a social democracy, perhaps like Sweden, but a socialist side, and it was now coming to be too late, and he said of Gaitskell, who was by then Leader of the Labour Party, “Gaitskell wants to make capitalism work better, but with controls. That’s what makes him so dangerous. He wants capitalism to go on existing, but without the prizes which capitalism earns for itself. Of course, this is impossible – it cannot work.” You see, Margaret Thatcher would have agreed with that: you can’t make capitalism work with those controls – it has to be full-blooded if it’s going to work properly. Bevan, from the other side, took the same view.

So, what both he and Gaitskell understood, and their reactions were different, that the working class was a declining constituency. Now, some of you may have read the recent obituaries of Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, and he wrote a famous pamphlet in 1978, “The Forward March of Labour Halted”, it was called, “The Forward March of Labour Halted” because there was no longer a large working class – it was a declining force. Now, Bevan and Gaitskell saw that in the 1950s, and what was going to happen.

Now, Bevan said the answer is you simply have to go on propagandising for the Labour Party, but had he stopped thinking – in other words, what was good enough for Kier Hardy would be good enough for the 1950s and ‘60s. He found, in council housing, his preference for council housing was not shared by most people. People preferred to own their own houses. Nationalisation…not very popular, probably a vote-loser… The National Health Service, perhaps his priorities were not right – perhaps he was not right about private provision. Perhaps private provision could improve the Health Service, might be a good use of priorities. Perhaps charges were sensible.

When he resigned in 1951, another Labour MP said this; “On this question of principle of a free Health Service, it is nonsense! There are many national scandals it would be costly to correct. This is not a matter of principle, but on the contrary, a practical matter. There is only one test we can apply, and it is an overall one: with what we have and can get by way of revenue, how can we lay it to the best advantage of those who need it most?” The person who said that, you may be surprised to hear, was Tony Benn, that it was not a matter of principle but a practical matter.

Now, even so, as you move later on, perhaps what was right in 1948 wasn’t right in 1958 or 1968 or later on, perhaps one ought to adapt. So, one can ask about Bevan, in his search for socialism, was he failing to distinguish means from ends? Did he see council houses, the particular structure of the Health Service he set up, and the nationalised industries, as ends in themselves rather than as means, perhaps good means, perhaps means that need to be reformed, towards the end of a better society? Perhaps the values were right, but they needed new thinking if they were to be realised - did he become obsolescent?

Now, I think his career shows that a party of the left needs a willingness to rethink and, if necessary, to jettison traditional forms in the face of changing realities. So, from one point of view, you may say he outlived his age. He was very shocked by what he thought of as exploitation of materialism by Harold Macmillan in the 1950s. He would have been horrified by Margaret Thatcher! I mean, it’s difficult to find words to think of what he would have thought of Margaret Thatcher.

Now, that’s one conclusion you can draw from his career, that he was obsolescent, but I think that’s not the whole story because, as I’ve said, Bevan was at his best as a man of government, where he did think and rethink, and he wasn’t at his best, in my view, in opposition. He wasn’t a great rebel. He was a great man of government, in my opinion.

Now, there’s an interesting story of what happened after Labour’s third election defeat in 1959. Hugh Gaitskell, the Party Leader, raised the question of whether Clause IV of the Labour Party’s Constitution should be deleted – that’s committing the Party to the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange, finally deleted by Tony Blair in 1995, many years later. Now, as you can imagine, Gaitskell aroused a tremendous…a hornets’ nest of opposition in the Labour Party, and it’s not clear whether Bevan would have supported him or not.

He published just one article on Clause IV, after Gaitskell raised his point. He said: “If the Labour Party were to abandon its main thesis for public ownership, it would not differ in any important respect from the Tory Party. The overwhelming majority of the Labour Party will not acquiesce in the jettisoning of the concept of progressive public ownership.”

But some years earlier, in a book he’d published, “In Place of Fear”, he said something rather different. He said: “Democratic socialism is the child of modern society and so a relativist philosophy. It seeks the truth in any given situation, knowing all the time that, if this be pushed too far, it falls into error. It struggles against the evils that flow from private property, yet realises that all forms of private property are not necessarily evil.”

So, we don’t know what side he would have taken, but there’s one important point I think: that Gaitskell, his old opponent who’d beaten him for the Leadership, was now at Bevan’s mercy. If Bevan had not supported him, Gaitskell I think could not have survived, that Gaitskell was now dependent on Bevan.

But, fate took a malign hand. In December 1959, Bevan was operated on for cancer. He was visited in hospital by his old friend Michael Foot, who found him, typically, he was still trying to educate himself – he was reading J.B. Priestley’s book, “Literature and Western Man”. And when he was – he thought he was recovering, but he had inoperable cancer – but when he was recovering, he gave an interview and he said he would never write his memoirs. He said, “I understand that Mr Macmillan reads political biographies. I have never been able to achieve that level of credulity.” He said, “My experience of public life has taught me to know that most of them are entirely unreliable. I would rather take my fiction straight.” And then he added: “Newspapers, of course, I read avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.”

Now, had he lived – and when he died, he died in the summer of 1960, he was younger than Harold Macmillan when he formed his Government. Had he lived, he might well have once again become a creative and effective Minister – we don’t know.

Now, Gaitskell also died early, in January 1963, and it is a tragedy I think for the Labour Party to lose the leadership which both might have provided. The history of Britain might have been very different had they survived. They might have made Labour a natural party of government, because, behind all their differences, I think they had a great deal in common, of treating the electorate as capable of intelligent judgement and arguing their case. Bevan in particular, as the remark about newspapers showed, deplored the trivialisation of debate in newspapers. He wanted to educate the electorate. He said the papers ought to devote more of their time to reporting parliamentary proceedings, and he was an early supporter of the televising of Parliament, on the grounds of public education.

Bevan was a man I think of greater vision than Gaitskell. He once said, “Any fool can see that two and two makes four, but it takes real capacity to stretch it to five, and better still, to six or seven.” If anyone could have persuaded the British people to have adopted the socialist ideal, I think it was Bevan, and as I say, I think he didn’t think of the National Health Service as socialism, but as a step towards it. He wanted to replace capitalism.

Very interestingly, Gaitskell’s widow admitted, some years after Gaitskell’s death, that, in retrospect, she felt that Bevan should have been Leader of the Labour Party rather than her own husband. She said, “It would have made much more sense politically because Bevan was a natural leader for a socialist party,” which of course begs the question of whether Labour was in fact a socialist party.

In Government, Bevan would have been radical, but on foreign and defence policy, he would have favoured a very strong patriotic stance. He would have been, in my opinion, a left-wing Thatcher in Government, a patriot, a left-wing radical patriot, and as I say, it was power, not opposition, that brought out the best in him. Of course, we’ll never know what might have been, but it seems to me that he remains the preeminent spokesman of democratic socialism in post-War Britain and that he might have been the great leader that the late-20th Century Labour Party so badly needed but was never able to find.

Thank you.


                                                                                                                         © Professor Vernon Bogdanor 2012

Vernon Bogdanor

Professor Sir Vernon Bogdanor FBA CBE

Professor of Law

Vernon Bogdanor CBE is Emeritus Gresham Professor of Law, former Visiting Gresham Professor of Political History, Research Professor at King's College London, a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

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