Reviewed by John-Paul McCarthy (Exeter, 2000)
In a costly error of judgment back in 2007, America’s Fox News network invited Christopher Hitchens to participate in a panel discussion about the death of the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Balliol has rarely proved itself compatible with the Bible Belt, and Hitchens was not in the mood for reconciliation. He went in hard against the Moral Majority, and as the lights came down at the end, Hitchens shouted over the mayhem: ‘If you gave Falwell an enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox.’
Old-school platform orators often invite such thoughts, prompting their audience to wonder if their public vigour is matched by a similarly robust private personality. Aneurin Bevan was no Falwell of course, but as Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds (St Edmund Hall) shows in this authoritative biography, quite a few of Bevan’s contemporaries had Hitchens-like sentiments about the other Welsh wizard.
Churchill called him a ‘voluble careerist’, this being retaliation of sorts for Bevan’s declaration that his wartime premiership constituted a ‘major natural disaster’. The seedier elements who were clustered around Lord Beaverbrook, Bevan’s unlikeliest friend, mocked him as a ‘Ritzy Robespierre’ and a ‘Bollinger Bolshevik’. And the Gaitskell set dismissed him as a splitter and a demagogue who poisoned the Labour wells for a generation.
These kinds of indictments drew strength from the chasm that opened up on occasion between Bevan’s martial public socialism and his more complicated private thinking. This biography emphasises Bevan’s canny and cautious behaviour during the key events in a career that took him from Sirhowy Valley to the Attlee cabinet as Minister for Health and Housing. Several colleagues were appalled by his immersion in the Beaverbook media cosmos, and Bevan himself was not quite sure what he was doing there on occasion. (‘As one who hates the power you hold, and the order of life which enables you to wield it . . . I hold you in the most affectionate regard . . .’).
Bevan’s canniness may even have extended to a mild form of corruption during his ministerial years when he apparently helped an Italian nightclub owner with import licenses in return for large portions of steak and oysters. Tame stuff indeed compared to subsequent claims that his dauphin Harold Wilson had been turned by the KGB after they unearthed some hanky-panky involving Gannex raincoats, but evocative all the same of a perished era when the ministerial ear could best be reached via the ministerial belly.
This biography asks readers to take Bevan seriously as a thinker, but he comes off second best when his writings are compared to Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, with its brilliant critique of antique Marxist dogma about class collisions, the anti-competitive dimensions of early twentieth-century socialist thought, and the various disappointments of the nationalisation project. (‘Efficiency has little to do with ownership because in the modern corporation ownership has little to do with control. Thus a change of ownership, by itself, makes little difference.’) Bevan could not really compete here, but we do learn that he actually wrote poetry in his spare time.
For all these limitations and deformities, Bevan’s reputation as a ‘great man’ continues to rest on the establishment of the NHS, the subject of the best chapter in this biography. Here we see the diastole and systole of the policy process in all its intricate detail as Bevan sought to convince the British Medical Association that he had no necessary desire to destroy their access to private income. His goal was to end ‘the buying and selling of medical practices’ insofar as they touched on the poor and the careworn. And with a little help from Attlee and Dalton off-stage, this is exactly what he did.
The Hitchens-like critique continues to have some valency so far as Bevan’s unsteady response towards Suez is concerned, but it still stops just short of the hospital entrance.
Cover images © I.B. Tauris.