Nye Bevan was born in 5 November 1897 in Tredegar in Wales. His father was a miner and as a child he experienced first hand the privations of the working classes.
Nye Bevan left school at the age of 13 to go and work in the local colliery. He soon gained a real interest in politics and was attracted to the philosophy of democratic Socialism and Marxism which sought to improve the lot of the working class.
During the bitter 1926 General Strike, Nye Bevan emerged as one of the most prominent and passionate leaders of the Welsh mining unions. The bitter struggle, eventually ending in defeat for the unions, only made him more determined to achieve political office.
In 1928, he won a seat on the local county council and this success led him to be chosen as the Labour party candidate for the Ebbw Vale seat. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1929, and easily held his seat when another election was called in 1931.
The Great Depression helped to polarise British politics and Nye Bevan became well known as a champion of the working class, fiercely criticising those who did little to help the working class. This included the Tories, but also the former Labour MP Ramsey McDonald who Bevan saw as betraying the interests of the unemployed and working classes.
Though a fierce critic of Winston Churchill’s economic policies he was generally supportive of Churchill’s stance on rearmament and opposed the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain. Nye Bevan was a staunch supporter of the Republican movement in the Spanish Civil war of 1936, visiting Spain in that period. For a brief time he advocated an alliance with other left wing parties, including the Communist party; for this he was temporarily thrown out of the Labour party, but he was later readmitted in 1939. In fact, he held a lifetime allegiance to the Labour party feeling that only the Labour party had the opportunity to gain power and represent the working man. Yet, despite his loyalty, he was quick to turn on Labour leaders whom he felt he had betrayed the Socialist ideal.
National Health Service
One of Nye Bevan’s greatest achievements was the formation of the National Health Service following the landslide Labour victory of 1945. Against opposition from doctors (and despite the fact Britain was virtually bankrupt after the war) he managed to push through radical reforms which provided health care free at the point of use for the whole nation. Bevan admitted he had to make concessions to doctors, but these concessions were made without compromising on the fundamental principle of free health care. Bevan is later said to have remarked he had to ‘stuff their mouths with gold’ to get it through.
But, the NHS remained Bevan’s proudest achievement, as a practical and popular example of socialist ideals.
“The National Health service and the Welfare State have come to be used as interchangeable terms, and in the mouths of some people as terms of reproach. Why this is so it is not difficult to understand, if you view everything from the angle of a strictly individualistic competitive society. A free health service is pure Socialism and as such it is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society.”
—Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear, p106
In 1951, he resigned as Minister of Health in protest at Hugh Gaitskell’s decision to introduce prescription charges for the NHS.
In 1955, he unsuccessfully tried to gain the leadership of the Labour party, although popular he was seen as too radical to lead the party in a general election. During the 1950s, he was the unofficial leader for the ‘left wing’ of the party – which became known as the Bevanites.
Bevan was definitely a conviction politician.
“We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders. We enter this campaign at this general election, not merely to get rid of the Tory majority. We want the complete political extinction of the Tory Party.”
– Aneurin Bevan start of 1945 election campaign
“We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.”
Aneurin Bevan “Observer”, 6 December 1953.
Although he opposed high expenditure on defence and nuclear power, his speech at the 1957 party conference was very controversial as he ridiculed the idea of nuclear disarmament.
“But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications — and do not run away from it — you will send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber. … And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.”
* Speech at the Labour Party Conference, 4 October, 1957, on unilateral nuclear disarmament.
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