Aneurin Bevan Biography Review

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator – a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers.

‘Nye Bevan’ by John Campbell

Arguably, Aneurin Bevan, the miner-turned-politician who became in roughly equal measure the darling of the British labour movement and the bête noire of the right-wing establishment, is better remembered than any other member of the historic 1945-51 Labour government – better than his colleagues Ernie Bevin (part-architect of NATO), Stafford ‘Austerity’ Cripps and even the Prime Minister himself, Clem Attlee. This is because Bevan’s name will be forever linked in the public consciousness with the NHS, which, as Minister of Health, he brought into being in 1948.

Unlike every other political issue of that era (it pre-dates serious squabbles over Europe by more than a decade and outlasted the Cold War), the health service continues to excite debate and controversy today. In this splendid biography, John Campbell examines the pertinent issues: the extent to which the NHS was Bevan’s own creation; his dealings with interested parties such as the BMA; the administrative and financial structures put in place to support this audacious social experiment; and the post-1948 political fallout.

Tellingly, however, Campbell devotes a mere 30 or so pages directly to the NHS – though indirectly it casts a lengthy shadow across the latter half of the book and the final decade of his life – because there was, in fact, so much more to this remarkable figure, a combustible mix of self-taught intellectual, instinctive rebel, eager, ambitious minister and charismatic leader. Campbell provides us with a fully rounded portrait of the man as well as analysing his impact on the Labour Party. He tackles with impeccable balance the highs and lows of Bevan’s life: the (relatively few) periods of triumph as well as the more frequent times of struggle, failure and schism – not to mention odd moments of bathos, most notably the publication of an eagerly anticipated book In Place Of Fear in 1952.

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator – a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers. Moreover, it becomes apparent that his judgements about politics, about future developments, about the nature of mankind no less, were often seriously flawed – a consequence of a deterministic Marxism that he learnt in his youth and carried almost to the grave.

The controversies surrounding Bevan did not end with his untimely death in 1960. The party wounds of the 1950s, patched up for the 1959 hustings, were reopened well before the election of Wilson’s unhappy government in 1964. Thus, the first volume of Michael Foot’s biography, published in 1962, brilliantly written to be sure, is hagiographic and tendentious and reads best, as Campbell himself says, as “an episode in the long-running civil war” within the party.

Foot, himself a born rebel and Bevan’s Acolyte-in-Chief, refused to serve in Wilson’s first government and then renewed the fight with a second volume in 1973. In an excellent Introduction, Campbell deals with Bevan’s political legacy, particularly the claim made for Bevan’s imprimatur by a host of Labour politicians (the latest, to update Campbell, being John Reid, Blair’s Health Secretary since 2003) as they re-brand and re-invent policies – or (increasingly) consign them to the dustbin – and seek to sell a new manifesto to a deeply sceptical and conservative movement.

John Campbell is a fine, experienced biographer, scrupulously fair in the judgements that he reaches. The book is authoritatively written and meticulously researched, marred only by a handful of proofing errors. I confess to finding one ‘Wildean’ slip (a reference to Alan Bullock’s book Earnest (sic) Bevin in the bibliography) highly amusing but, as a reader with no knowledge of the publishing world, I am puzzled as to why such errors should remain to blight later editions of published works. This book was originally published under the title Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism in 1987 and re-issued with an abridged title ten years later, presumably to mark the coincidence of the centenary of Bevan’s birth and Blair’s first landslide.

Reading Campbell opens a window on the politics of a bygone era, allowing us to draw comparisons with modern times. Take age, for example. With Tony Blair having been Prime Minister for seven years by the time he reached 50, it is fascinating to learn that Bevan himself was the most junior member of the 1945 Cabinet aged 47. Or, take the press. Setting the headlines Bevan received c1951 alongside the obituary notices of a decade later, reminds one of the kicking meted out to Tony Benn, Bevan’s successor as Labour’s bogey man in the 1970s and 1980s, now rather fondly admired as a harmless, slightly eccentric, elder statesman.

The writer uses a 1997 Introduction to update us on important political developments in the decade since the first edition; the main text, however, seems to be untouched and, as Campbell went to some trouble to relate the political controversies in Bevan’s life to the issues of the 1980s (particularly Neil Kinnock’s battles to modernise party policy vis-à-vis nationalisation and unilateralism), the reader is left with an unmistakeable sense of the ephemerality and sheer unpredictability of modern politics. For example, writing in 1987, Campbell was obviously taking seriously predictions of the Labour Party’s terminal electoral decline (p253 – “Some would say [the 1951 election defeat] was the beginning of the end of the Labour Party”); a mere 14 years later in 2001 it was the Conservatives about whom such prognostications were being uttered.

I thoroughly recommended this marvellous book to political animals and the intelligent general reader alike.

This review relates to the edition published in 1997. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.

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