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 Bevin [sic] 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.

Rush: A Fan’s Appreciation

Note — 11 January 2020

I heard the awful news late last evening that Neil had died earlier in the week of — of all things — brain cancer. What a cruel roll of the bones for such a cerebral and erudite human being. This appreciation was originally written in June 2018 after years of hoping against hope that Rush would work again and possibly even play in Europe. Neil was 67 years of age. Far too fleet, indeed.

Suddenly you were gone / From all the lives you left your mark upon

Afterimage. Lyrics by Neil Peart.
Rush — a fan's appreciation

It looks increasingly like that’s finally and, at least semi-officially, it: Canadian rock legends Rush are no longer a going concern, it seems. Anecdotes about various age-related physical ailments and wanting to spend more time with the family have been circulating for some time but, for this fan, the absence of European dates on the back of the ‘R40’ American tour said it all. It’s impossible in a few paragraphs to do more than scratch the surface of the Rush phenomenon, of course, but — for what it’s worth — here are a few random reflections on (cliché-alert) Canada’s premier power trio.

22 May 2013 – the nearest I ever got to the stage. Rush on the Clockwork Angels tour, Manchester, England.

First of all, ‘rock legends’ — really?! After all, it’s a reasonable bet that more than a few music fans, young and not so young, would probably struggle to identify anything much by Rush beyond those staples of rock CD ‘Best Of…’ collections, The Spirit of Radio and Tom Sawyer. Not for nothing have Rush been characterised as ‘the biggest cult band in the world’. Yet the statistics — gazillions of album sales over 40 years, supported by countless sold-out tours — are undeniable. Deeply unfashionable, maybe, but in a long and distinguished career they have repeatedly reinvented themselves and their music since those early Page-inspired riffs and lyrical nods to Tolkien.

I discovered Rush around 1977, eleven years old and just encountering the giants of what was then being disparaged and dismissed as ‘dinosaur rock’ — the likes of Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd. The band’s prog-rock era, with its elaborate pieces, grandiose sweep and multi-layered depths, culminating in the two ‘Cygnus’ albums, represents for me their creative peak. Epics such as 2112, Xanadu and La Villa Strangiato are a timeless joy, 40-plus years after their release.

In the wake of punk, a stripped-down, simplified, back-to-basics aesthetic revolutionised rock music. In 1978 Yes released an album made up of nine — yes, nine! — songs; Led Zeppelin jettisoned the extended solos on their 1980 European tour, almost halving the duration of their live show; and if there was an overarching theme to Genesis’s 1981 album, it was neatly encapsulated by the stark a-b-a-c-a-b structure of an early version of one of the tracks they recorded during the sessions. Meanwhile, a ‘new wave of British heavy metal’ — the likes of Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Whitesnake — surfaced in Britain and made it big in America: commercial, catchy, radio-friendly.

Rush, too, moved with the times. The Spirit of Radio’s opening riff heralded a decade of musical invention and experimentation. Prog-rock epics were replaced by shorter, streamlined, more ‘accessible’ songs. Geddy’s increasing use of keyboards, at times battling the dominance of Alex’s guitars in the mix, coupled with Neil’s embrace of electronic drums, modernised their sound. The early ‘80s — Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals — represent the band’s most commercially successful period, their moment in the sun.

For some, this new sound was too mellow, anodyne, adulterated. Actually I love those albums but, anyway, the appeal of Rush was always about more than just the music. Fiercely proud of their musical proficiency, Rush were also clever, thoughtful and cultured. Take their tour programmes, album artwork and prodigious sleeve notes, packed with witty, sometimes arcane, references — Brought to you by the letter ‘M’ — or the exhaustive inventories, meticulously cataloguing the band’s equipment, seemingly down to the last bass pedal, guitar pick and cymbal. Speaking of the tour programme, how exhilarating to read Neil’s word-perfect mini-essays, tracing the gestation of the current album, its musical forms and lyrical themes.

My least favourite albums are probably those from the ‘90s. Pick up anything from Presto to Test for Echo and expect a collection of maybe ten five-minute songs, including a title track and an instrumental. In a word: formulaic. Yet the ‘90s also produced a sprinkling of undoubted career highs, not least Bravado, Neil Peart’s hymn to heroic failure. Rush were not alone in negotiating creative peaks and troughs but I remain baffled by Planet Rock magazine’s ‘Buyer’s Guide’, which recently [Issue 2: July 2017] featured nothing after 1985’s Power Windows in their Rush top ten. How many groups can boast of releasing two outstanding albums –– worthy of comparison with the very best in their entire canon — in the autumn of their career? I refer, of course, to Snakes and Arrows and Clockwork Angels.

I came late to the first three albums (repackaged as a collection called Archives after the success of 2112). It’s a story of a band finding its feet and the tale of 2112 as a make-or-break album is well known. I rarely play the first album, despite the classics Working Man and Finding My Way. Perhaps it’s my nod to Neil Peart; his absence makes Rush (the album) feel more like proto-Rush. I delved deeper into Fly by Night (Peart’s first album) after rediscovering All the World’s a Stage, particularly the hidden gem In the End and the album’s tour de force By-Tor and the Snow Dog. So typical of the band’s ambition and early experimentation, the savage fight for dominion is perfectly realised through the snarling interplay of bass and guitar, rival champions of Hell and the Overworld.

Most intriguing, for me at least, is the somewhat maligned Caress of Steel. I Think I’m Going Bald may be a rare misfire but Bastille Day was a raucous live opener in its day (inexplicably nudged out by Lakeside Park on the R40 tour). The Fountain of Lamneth, originally taking up the whole of Side Two, is a consistently overlooked bundle of interesting, if semi-formed, ideas. Like digging through The March of the Black Queen on Queen II to unearth the roots of Bohemian Rhapsody, this bold 20-minute musical experiment, with its discrete sections, frequent mood changes and complex time signatures, foreshadows their coming masterpiece.

I only saw Rush in concert in the latter years; ‘R30’ was my first tour. Their live show is exceptionally well documented on film and CD. Has any other group released quite so much live material during their ‘active’ years, I wonder? The musicianship was always exemplary, the visuals compelling and the band’s humour, often self-deprecating, at its most conspicuous. But with only three people, the complexity and multi-instrumentation of the music made it difficult to faithfully reproduce the Rush sound live. Technology to the rescue: but therein lies a quandary. How much of the ‘live’ Mystic Rhythms, to take a random example, was actually being played live? One consequence of this reliance on technology was too few opportunities to experiment on stage. Only on the very final tours did the band seem to take steps to rectify this, creating space in the set to, well, fiddle around a bit.

Then there are the words.

How grating it is to hear someone lazily pigeon-hole Rush’s lyrics as ‘fantasy/Dungeons & Dragons’. Just as the band repeatedly reinterpreted and reinvented their sound, so Peart’s writing ranged across numerous forms and themes, his words always crafted with style, wit and intelligence. Take Losing It from Signals, Peart’s meditation on the effects of ageing on the creative process, its wistful sentiments perfectly complemented by the plaintive echoes of the electric violin. Or Closer to the Heart: What better commitment from parent to child than “You can be the captain and I will draw the chart”? Or Afterimage: What more fitting summation of the devastating impact of unexpected loss than “Suddenly you were gone / from all the lives you left your mark upon”?

The lyrical themes of the Snakes and Arrows album from 2007 cover similar ground to the book God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (also 2007) and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (published a year earlier). Peart was wrestling with these issues much earlier, of course. Free Will (1980), for example, rejects the notion of supernatural determinism: “A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance”. Mystic Rhythms (1985) is a paean to what Dawkins himself later called ‘the magic of reality’.

In its time (1976) the lyrics of 2112 — “Inspired by the genius of Ayn Rand” — earned the band a certain notoriety after elements of the British music press condemned its anti-totalitarian message as proto-fascism. While Ayn Rand’s philosophy is certainly associated with the extreme neo-liberals of the postwar years, the charge says more about the political and cultural myopia of the left in the 1970s. Following the collapse of communism, who seriously doubts that totalitarianism in all its forms, whether of the left or of the right, stifles freedom and creativity?

So many themes, so many wonderful lines. Perhaps then it is fitting that the final song on the final album is The Garden — Peart’s nod to Voltaire’s novel Candide — in which the narrator talks (metaphorically) of “a garden to nurture and respect”. For this fan at least, Rush leave us a wonderful legacy of 40 years of music worthy of nurture and respect.