Aneurin (‘Nye’) Bevan (1897-1960) is best known for his achievement of bringing in the National Health Service (NHS) as Minister for Health in the United Kingdom’s Attlee Labour Government (1945-1951).
Bevan was an avowed socialist, though not a communist or Marxist. He saw the NHS as a socialist measure, of providing health services for everyone regardless of wealth and funded by everyone via the democratic state.
When I was growing up in Melbourne, his name – always ‘Nye Bevan’ – was often referred to reverentially by my working class father who had lived and worked in London after World War 2 and supported the Attlee Government that, to the great shock and surprise of most commentators, had defeated Churchill’s Conservatives. My dad told me more than once that, having put their lives on the line to fight fascism, ex-servicemen like him expected a much better world and social system after the War. They hadn’t fought to keep things the same. (He demobbed in 1953, as the Royal Air Force, which he had joined in his native Malta in 1940, provided secure employment and opportunity for advancement). In Australia, when I was young, he would sometimes say: “Australia needs a Nye Bevan!” or “The Labor Party needs a leader like Bevan!”
Bevan was the real deal in the sense of being a working class man through and through. Born in a town in the southern coalfields of Wales, he went to work in a colliery at the age of thirteen. He hoped that socialism could be achieved through the ballot box, which made sense given that adult men had finally won the vote, without qualification, in the UK in 1918 when Bevan was twenty-one.
For women, the universal franchise came later – 1928 – and I love the way Bevan states early in his memoir, In place of fear (Simon & Schuster, New York ,1952) that he was elected to Britain’s first democratic parliament. The General Election of 1929 was the first based on universal adult suffrage.
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I thought I’d revisit Bevan’s memoir after recently hearing John Hewson on ABC-TV. Hewson said that we might be heading for a big economic crisis. Hewson was leader of the Opposition in the early 1990s and had been an economics adviser to two Liberal Treasurers.
I’m not good at economics but I can see how ‘the big one’ might be coming. Of course, I’d heard this many times before, mostly from old communists. Every periodic crisis in the boom and bust cycle was seen as the beginning of the end of capitalism. But now, things do seem different, and everyday people feel it, as the rate of profit has steadily declined over the decades, with wages recently more or less stagnant, the standard of living in decline and government increasingly reliant on debt to fund services.
But I hadn’t heard it from a prominent conservative before.
What leapt out at me from Bevan’s memoir wasn’t the reassertion of socialism as a good thing, an extension of democracy into the social and economic realms, so much as the depressing reality that in the C21st the left in the advanced capitalist countries (ie, those requiring state funding to keep the system going) still faces the same dilemma as it did in 1919, when the UK seemed to be approaching a revolutionary moment. There was even unrest in the Army, and massive discontent and strike action – some of it violently suppressed – among the working class. The Russian revolution of 1917 had also put the fear of God into the British ruling class.
Bevan recalls (pp. 21-22) how the leader of the miners’ union, Robert Smillie, described to him a meeting at that time by the leaders of the ‘most formidable combination of industrial workers in the history of Great Britain’ – the miners, the transport workers and the railway workers whose industrial action had brought the government of the day – headed by Liberal Lloyd George – to its knees.
Here is the full quote, and the lesson learned:
“Lloyd George sent for the Labour leaders, and they went, so Robert (Smillie) told me, ‘truculently determined they would not be talked over by the seductive and eloquent Welshman (Lloyd George, the Prime Minister)’. At this, Bob’s eyes twinkled in his grave, strong face. ‘He was quite frank with us from the outset’, Bob went on.
“He said to us: ‘Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps. We have just emerged from a great war and the people are eager for the reward of their sacrifices, and we are in no position to satisfy them. In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us.
“‘But if you do so’, went on Mr Lloyd George, ‘have you weighed in the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the Government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the State which is stronger than the State itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the State, or withdraw and accept the authority of the State.
“‘Gentlemen’, asked the Prime Minister quietly, ‘have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?‘
“‘From that moment on’, said Robert Smillie, ‘we were beaten and we knew we were'”.