Bevan’s Boy

John Campbell

  • The Making of Neil Kinnock by Robert Harris
    Faber, 256 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 571 13266 9
  • Neil Kinnock: The Path to Leadership by G.M.F. Drower
    Weidenfeld, 162 pp, £8.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 297 78467 6

For several years, until he became Labour leader and had to watch his entry more carefully, Neil Kinnock claimed in Who’s Who to be the author of an anthology of the writings and sayings of Aneurin Bevan entitled What Nye said: each year the supposed publication date was authoritatively amended, although the book has never appeared. When asked about it by G.M.F. Drower, Kinnock prevaricated:

It’s, er, in four cardboard boxes in the attic at the moment, having been moved there from the garage. Er, I just haven’t had time to finish it off. It’s been in existence like that since 1975. I’m not sure how, er, it got in. It started off in Who’s Who some time ago but, er, you know, frankly, to tell you the truth, it’s not the kind of thing I give much attention to.

Undoubtedly the repeated statement that he had already published (or sometimes that he was about to publish) the book was wishful thinking rather than deliberate deception on Kinnock’s part; but it is a comically transparent attempt to assume the mantle of Bevan, the more embarrassing for the fact that he has never had the application to get the book together (or even to get someone to do it for him). The closest he has got to it was to write a short introduction to a 1978 reissue of In Place of Fear. The story accords all too well with the widespread impression of Kinnock as a nice lightweight ill-equipped for the job into which his engaging personality and a large slice of luck have suddenly precipitated him. Experience alone can dispel that impression. In the meantime his eagerness to claim the Bevanite succession raises interesting questions both about Kinnock himself and about the nature of the Labour Party.

If to be a cult figure – an object of piety and a source of legitimising quotations – is to have influence, then Bevan’s influence in the Labour Party in the 24 years since his death has been far greater than it ever was in life. For thirty years he railed in vain against the leadership, first of MacDonald, Snowden and Jimmy Thomas, then of Attlee, Morrison, Bevin and the upstart Gaitskell, antagonising the union bosses and the PLP equally, the darling only of the constituencies. He was expelled from the party in 1939 and very nearly again in 1955, and by the time Attlee finally resigned in December 1955 there was no question, despite his long experience and great ability, of his being a serious candidate for the leadership. He was seen as a turbulent maverick, an angry Old Testament prophet from whom the more ambitious and modern-minded of his former supporters, like Wilson and Cross-man, were now anxious to distance themselves. It is a matter for argument whether by 1959 he was mellowing into a position of authority in the party: it took his death the following year to transform him into the maligned hero and inspiration of British socialism. From then on, an association with Bevan has been an asset to conjure with for an aspiring leader. Harold Wilson built his platform for the leadership in 1963 largely on a spurious leftism derived from his resignation with Bevan from the faltering Attlee Cabinet 12 years earlier, and he never ceased to milk his memory for flagrantly sentimental recollections. For the 1964 Election Michael Foot wrote a Bevanite hagiography of Wilson, which he quickly expunged from his own Who’s Who entry (the opposite of the Kinnock technique) when Wilson’s Government, despite the presence in high office of Crossman and Barbara Castle, proved a disappointment. (The pirating of Bevan’s phrase ‘In place of fear’ for Barbara Castle’s industrial relations White Paper ‘In Place of Strife’ was for many the last straw.) As Bevan’s biographer, Foot kept the faith alive, and eventually his twenty selfless years as High Priest were considered sufficient qualification for the leadership. Whether Bevan, if he could have been brought back to life, would have thought any better of Foot’s leadership than of Wilson’s must be doubted. The tangible political influence behind the genuflections is hard to detect. The cult might now be thought to be discredited. Yet here is Kinnock still apparently intent upon reviving it.

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