#lowerthanvermin

Owen Hatherley

  • Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds
    I.B. Tauris, 316 pp, £25.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 78076 209 8

When the Health and Social Care Bill was passed into law at the start of 2012, it elicited one of those usually impotent hashtag campaigns seen so often on Twitter, where – the notion is – thousands of people using the same tag manifest the strength of the collective will. An earlier and very popular hashtag, #welovetheNHS, had been started in response to the claim by opponents of Obama’s ‘public option’ in US healthcare that the NHS was a widely hated basket case. Then, each contributor had supplied an anecdote, crammed into 140 characters, about something the NHS had done for them or for their relatives. The tag that appeared when the Health and Social Care Bill was passed was the less friendly #lowerthanvermin, and instead of heartwarming stories about doctors and nurses it was usually accompanied by tweets condemning the Conservative Party and predicting what could be expected from a privatised NHS.

The source of the phrase ‘lower than vermin’ is a speech made by Aneurin Bevan, then minister of health, at a Labour Party rally on 4 July 1948, on the eve of the launch of the National Health Service that he himself had devised. The form the NHS took was inspired, according to Bevan’s account, by the self-organised, free-at-the-point-of-use health service set up by workers in Tredegar, the small mining town in the Sirhowy Valley where he was born and raised, and where he began his political career. Although he had the backing of the prime minister, Clement Attlee, and although there was cross-party support for the Beveridge Report, which committed the government to some form of universal healthcare, the NHS was forced through in the teeth of opposition from the British Medical Association. One of its achievements was to unify and nationalise the various municipal, religious and charitable hospitals, something that was at least as important to Bevan – in eliminating profit-seeking in healthcare – as making care free to patients. It is probably the most radical institution ever built in the UK, yet the speech in which Bevan announced its inception is remembered not so much for his trumpeting of the achievement as for his bitter reminders of what made it necessary: ‘No attempts at ethical or social seduction can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation.’ He had in mind the treatment of people like his father, David, who, as Bevan put it, was ‘choked to death’ by pneumoconiosis (a lung condition caused by long-term inhalation of coal dust) but received no compensation since the condition wasn’t classified as an industrial disease under the Workmen’s Compensation Act.

Bevan left school at 14 and went to work in the mines, but after a brief involvement with ‘industrial unionism’ (essentially, syndicalism), he was dismissed as a ‘troublemaker’. He became a Labour councillor and then a county councillor, and in 1929 was elected to Parliament as the MP for Ebbw Vale. He joined the internal opposition to Ramsay MacDonald’s austerity policies, a small Keynesian group led by Oswald Mosley. In the 1931 general election Labour lost 80 per cent of its seats, but Bevan kept his, and became a major figure on the party’s left wing. In 1939 he was briefly expelled for advocating a popular front between Labour, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party; during the war he was, according to Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, a ‘one-man opposition’ to the coalition government (Churchill called him a ‘squalid nuisance’). This didn’t dissuade Attlee from appointing him as minister of health (he also had responsibility for housing) in 1945. After resigning in 1951 over the proposal to introduce prescription charges, he led the Labour left, now known as Bevanites, before breaking with them in turn in 1957 over nuclear disarmament – he was against it, in what is usually put down to a compromise incumbent on him as shadow foreign secretary. He died in 1960, aged 62, leaving the British left with one of its few great legends, the story of a working-class socialist politician pushing against the limits of the Labour Party.

Thomas-Symonds’s biography has a perfunctory introduction by Neil Kinnock, who in his leadership acceptance speech in 1983 called Bevan his ‘inspiration’. Thomas-Symonds notes Kinnock’s distinction between the ‘illegitimate’ left (communists, Trots) and the ‘legitimate’ left, which presumably refers to such groups as James Maxton’s ILP (before it gave up on the Labour Party and disaffiliated), Tony Benn and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, and Bevan and his Bevanites. This elicits the slightly alarming thought that if Bevan had ever become leader, he might have turned out to be as blustering and ineffectual as Kinnock himself. Perhaps not. If this biography does anything to puncture the myth of the miner prophet, it is in revealing him as being very much a politician. ‘Socialism,’ Bevan said, ‘is the language of priorities.’ Some things were more important than others.

Bevan is practically alone among serious left-wing figures in Britain for being remembered not as a heroic failure but for creating an enduring institution. He resisted joining the many left-of-Labour organisations available. Unlike his friend Arthur Horner, he didn’t become a communist; he didn’t follow Mosley, for whom he co-wrote a manifesto, out of Labour into the New Party, and certainly not into the British Union of Fascists; and he didn’t approve of the decision made by his soon to be wife, Jennie Lee, to stay in the ILP when it disaffiliated in 1932 (she eventually rejoined Labour, and as arts minister under Harold Wilson devised and created the Open University). Bevan’s response to her when the ILP left Labour was typically cutting, not to say macho: ‘Why don’t you get into a nunnery and be done with it? … I tell you, it is the Labour Party or nothing.’

Part of what made Bevan so powerful a politician was his oratorical talent. The rhythm of his speeches was dictated by his efforts to overcome a stammer; his choice of words, especially his preference for sibilants, was the result of self-training in an environment where speakers were regularly heckled: in the bitter political conflicts of South Wales in the early 1920s, Labour was struggling to wrest the allegiance of miners and steelworkers from the Liberal Party. Thomas-Symonds makes clear that it made a difference which valley you came from. English-speaking towns like Ebbw Vale and Tredegar in Monmouthshire were Labour towns, unsusceptible to the apocalyptic communism of the Rhondda Valley slightly further west. In his early years, before he became a Labour councillor, Bevan was attracted by the founding text of Welsh militant unionism, The Miners’ Next Step (a product of the Rhonnda, largely written in 1912 by the Marxist Noah Ablett). As a teenage syndicalist, Bevan believed that ‘Parliament seemed a roundabout and tedious way of realising what seemed already within our grasp by more direct means.’ But the experience of the General Strike in 1926 and the subsequent job losses in the Valleys pushed Bevan away from the notion that the workers at the point of production would transform society: ‘Mass unemployment was a grim school. Industrial power was just what the unemployed did not possess.’ This isn’t the only example of Bevan’s attraction to methods and trends outside the ‘legitimate’ Labour left of the 1920s and 1930s: during his first term as an MP he tried to organise a Red Vienna-style paramilitary Schutzbund, the Tredegar Workers’ Freedom Group – an organisation undoubtedly less influential than the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, the miners’ proto-NHS.

Bevan was never seriously attracted by the Rhondda’s communism, notwithstanding his lifelong associations and friendships with communists, or the fact that he was expelled from Labour at the end of the 1930s for advocating working with the CPGB. In the mid-1930s, Bevan was convinced – both by the local evidence of capitalist collapse in the Valleys and the geopolitical evidence of fascist takeovers all over Europe – that liberal democracy was finished. The hope was that communist influence would lead to a ‘spiritual awakening of the British working-class movement’: he had been impressed by the communists’ mobilisation of the unemployed during the Great Depression, and asked publicly why ‘a first-class piece of work like the Hunger March has been left to the initiative of unofficial members of the party, and to the communists and the ILP … Consider what a mighty response the workers would have made if the whole machinery of the Labour movement had been mobilised for the Hunger March and its attendant activities.’ He visited the USSR twice, first in 1930 (Thomas-Symonds tells us that ‘there is no evidence he saw the Ukrainian famine’ – unsurprisingly, given that it occurred more than two years later), and then in the 1950s. In 1956 Bevan stoutly backed Hugh Gaitskell after he presented Khrushchev with a list of all the jailed social democrats in the Soviet Bloc. Bevan was, as he put it, ‘not a communist, I am a social democrat’. His vision of social democracy was, however, a great deal livelier than most.

Bevan’s rhetoric as an MP in the 1930s was often violent. In a speech to Parliament on the means test in 1936, he anticipated demonstrations across South Wales and declared his hope that the protesters ‘behave in such a manner that you will require to send a regular army to keep order [Hon. Members: ‘Shame!’]. I say that without the slightest hesitation. Honourable Members sit on those benches in cynical indifference to what has happened.’ He was nearly prosecuted soon after, on the evidence of a police inspector in Aberavon, for telling a group of demonstrators that ‘if you are forced to join [the army] by the means test, don’t forget when you get rifles issued out to you, what forced you to join the army, and then you will know what way to use these rifles.’ (Thomas-Symonds is quick to assure us that Bevan ‘had no record of calling for physical force’, though his own account suggests otherwise.) All this came to little, however.

Bevan was never a particularly popular figure in the ‘big battalions’ of the Labour movement, as they used to be called: his several attempts to stand as treasurer, leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party were defeated by the union block vote, until he became deputy leader shortly before his death thanks to Frank Cousins, the left-wing leader of the TGWU. His appointment to Attlee’s cabinet after the war can be seen as a concession to the party’s left. As editor of Labour’s house organ, Tribune, Bevan had become the left’s figurehead, and a more effective one than colder figures such as Stafford Cripps, who had previously played the role. Unlike Cripps, Bevan would also be a strongly left-wing minister. Along with the Beveridge Report and miners’ healthcare, he also drew inspiration from the modernist health centres set up by radical councils in the late 1930s – the most famous was Finsbury Health Centre, which appeared on a wartime poster as a promise of the future. Much could be written about the mass of ideas on which Bevan drew, about the alternative models the NHS supplanted, such as the ‘preventative’ care advocated by the Peckham Health Centre, and about the way in which a Labour movement habitually regarded as hidebound and conservative managed to build an institution in many ways more radical than anything then envisaged in France, Germany or Scandinavia. The NHS was a great political idea, but Thomas-Symonds’s book isn’t much interested in ideas. Instead it concentrates on Bevan’s attempts to reform the Ministry of Health, and goes into great detail over his long negotiations with the hostile BMA, as if to convey how boring and frustrating the practicalities of massive social reform really were. What comes across very clearly is the degree to which Bevan had to compromise in order to achieve his goal of a system entirely publicly owned and free at the point of use. Doctors would be allowed to continue charging non-NHS patients, and to work semi-independently; effectively, there would be a parallel private healthcare system, the existence of which would, half a century later, have consequences for the NHS itself.

Bevan’s other brief, housing, gets a much more cursory treatment. His ministry was responsible for the ‘Bevan Houses’, solidly built suburban terraces and semis with two toilets and lots of space. Bevan envisaged the country’s housing needs being met by a publicly owned National Housing Service as universal and comprehensive as the NHS. Lynsey Hanley, in Estates: An Intimate History, quotes from a speech – not cited in Nye – that Bevan gave at Spa Green, an attractive, ultra-modern housing estate in Finsbury designed by Berthold Lubetkin. ‘We shall be judged in ten years’ time by the type of houses we build,’ he declared. It was an answer to those demanding greater speed, more prefabrication, and if necessary smaller homes and fewer loos – anything to increase the number of houses as quickly as possible. A National Building Corporation was mooted but never seriously explored, largely because of likely opposition from local authorities, which undeniably had superior knowledge of their own territory. The new towns, Thomas-Symonds suggests, were the nearest equivalent. Again, he devotes page after page to practical irritants – in this case, the timber shortage of the late 1940s, which slowed the rate of building – at the expense of debates in government. He cites Jennie Lee’s denunciation of Hugh Dalton for trying to drop that all-important second toilet, but misses the central importance of housing in postwar thinking about modernity and ‘planning’, to which Bevan was deeply committed. It is galling that the Bevanite Richard Crossman would become such a parsimonious housing minister under Wilson, cutting costs and driving down standards through his adoption of system-built housing, the disastrous results of which were subsequently used to discredit the entire notion of planned housing as a public good.

*

Thomas-Symonds gives a convincing revisionist account of the fight with Gaitskell that led to Bevan’s resignation from the government in 1951. The familiar story is that Cold War imperatives – rearmament, the Korean War, the development of the British atomic bomb – led Gaitskell as chancellor to impose prescription charges; Bevan’s resignation brought the government down with him, leading to 13 years in the wilderness. Thomas-Symonds tells a different story, with Gaitskell the uncompromising ideologue and Bevan the pragmatist straining to accommodate him until finally he is pushed too far. Bevan, it transpires, wasn’t an early opponent of the Cold War, or of Britain’s involvement in it. He supported rearmament; he supported the sending of British troops in order to, in Thomas-Symonds’s words, ‘drive back the North Korean invaders’; he supported the founding of Nato; he even supported the development of the British Bomb. But when Gaitskell put together a budget with wildly inflated figures for defence – so high that Bevan claimed, rightly, that the government wouldn’t be able to spend all the money – and then imposed prescription charges, Bevan, who had committed himself to resigning if NHS charges were introduced, was practically forced to step down. This wasn’t a melodramatic flounce but a defeat by a far more ruthless political operator.

Bevan’s attitude to the Cold War is important, because after 1951 he devoted himself largely to international affairs; he would have been foreign secretary if Labour had won the 1955 or 1959 election, and would probably have taken the position if he’d lived long enough to join Wilson’s first cabinet. Like Orwell, his contemporary at Tribune, Bevan was a ‘revolutionary patriot’ during the war, believing, in Thomas-Symonds’s unrevolutionary words, that ‘Labour had to realise that the tide of history was moving in its direction, and ride on it to victory in the first peacetime general election.’ He was heavily critical of the wartime coalition, for its restrictions on civil liberties as well as for some of its military decisions, especially the delay in starting a second front to aid the Red Army. He also asked questions in Parliament about the severe repression Britain was imposing on its Indian colony: ‘The death penalty is imposed on any malefactor who cuts the telegraphic wires. Collective fines are imposed on areas for suspected sabotage … A military officer over a certain rank can take life in trying to protect property.’

Bevan went back on some of these positions when he entered government. He had openly criticised Attlee and Herbert Morrison for threatening wartime strikers, but had no compunction in backing the dispatch of troops to deal with communist-influenced striking dockers in 1948. And he spoke of Britain’s ‘moral leadership of the world’ while it ruthlessly suppressed an insurgency in Malaya and facilitated chaotic, bloody partitions in India and Israel-Palestine. If there is a defence of Bevan, it is that all this was in the service of a larger goal. He appears to have been committed to a version of non-alignment – the alternative bloc that was forming in the 1950s of non-Nato, non-Warsaw Pact countries, including Yugoslavia, India, Indonesia and Ghana, which did not shelter under, and specifically refused, the ‘nuclear umbrella’ of either the United States or the Soviet Union – although in Bevan’s conception it had a central role both for nuclear weapons and for the maintenance of British military power. In this he was at variance with the Bevanites, who largely favoured abandoning Britain’s role as a world power.

And then there was his support for the development of a British Bomb. In his notorious speech to the 1957 Labour Party Conference, Bevan asked whether anti-nuclear campaigners wanted to see Britain go ‘naked into the conference chamber’, thereby explicitly dissociating himself from the unilateral disarmament advocated by his close allies, including Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo and Crossman. Bevan believed that possession of the Bomb would be necessary for the protection of a postcolonial, democratic socialist non-aligned bloc. ‘Without its own nuclear deterrent,’ Thomas-Symonds ventriloquises, ‘Britain would be completely subservient to the US … To have a measure of independence from American foreign policy, and standing on the world stage, Britain needed its own H-bomb. Without it, Bevan could not even try to set about his idea of using non-aligned countries to break the deadlock of the Cold War.’ Whether or not Yugoslavia, Egypt or India wanted to be protected by a British deterrent rather than a Soviet or American one is not explored; it is more plausible that Bevan’s would have been a strictly local non-alignment, the bomb protecting a future British socialism from unwanted interference by the US or USSR.

But Thomas-Symonds doesn’t ask the question, and all of this remains counterintuitive and seemingly quixotic. Every other Labour enthusiast for the nuclear deterrent has been an enthusiastic Atlanticist – for a practical reason. Soon after Bevan’s speech, the 1958 Anglo-American Mutual Defence Agreement linked the British and American ‘deterrents’ together in such a manner that Britain effectively hasn’t had an independent foreign policy since; this is part of the reason de Gaulle kept the UK out of the EEC, his own attempt at creating a ‘third force’. Could Bevan have broken with this arrangement? It seems astoundingly unlikely, and a renegotiation of the 1958 agreement would surely have been considered a hostile act. Unlike, say, Tom Driberg, who claimed that Bevan came out in favour of nuclear weapons as a ‘sacrifice [of] his personal convictions for the sake of the unity of the party’, Thomas-Symonds believes, simply, that he was sincere about his utopian project. As with the ‘vermin’ speech, ‘he said it because he meant it.’

There was one area where Bevan didn’t break with the Bevanites: like them, he was convinced that only a radical form of social democracy – as opposed to a tamed, socialised capitalism – could reinvigorate the Labour movement. It’s usual to oppose Bevan’s statement of principles, In Place of Fear (1952), to Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956) as contrasting visions of postwar social democracy. Crosland has been recognised as a proto-Blairite, but it is Bevan’s insistence on the ultimately unreformed nature of postwar capitalism that has been borne out by events since 1974. Thomas-Symonds quotes several times from Bevan’s 1959 conference speech, the last before his death, in which he set himself against the notion that affluence had changed everything. ‘Are we going to send a message from this great Labour movement, which is the father and mother of modern democracy and modern socialism, that we in Blackpool in 1959 have turned our backs on our principles because of a temporary unpopularity in a temporarily affluent society?’ Thomas-Symonds doesn’t reflect on the fact that by the 1980s it was all too clear to people in Ebbw Vale and Tredegar (let alone the Rhondda) just how temporary that affluence had been. A brief footnote quotes Crosland sincerely asserting that the problem of unemployment was over. Since 1979, the unemployment rate has never dropped below what then seemed its shocking ‘return to the 1930s’ rate of around 1.5 million, and Bevan’s old stomping grounds have been especially hard hit.

Bevan’s attachment to Labour was firm, but only in so far as he could use it as an instrument on behalf of the people he represented. His vision of socialism was very different from the historical dogmatism of Soviet Marxism, which he regarded as the imposition on the present of a static idea of the future. After returning from his visit to Russia in 1959, Bevan told his friend Geoffrey Goodman that ‘he never did see socialism as an end point; rather, he felt society would be in a continuous state of development.’ He shared Raymond Williams’s notion of a Long Revolution, even if Williams himself, as Thomas-Symonds points out, was not a fan (‘it takes one Welshman to know another’). He also had a different conception of public ownership from the one that underpinned the nationalisation of the utilities by Attlee’s government. The syndicalism of the miners’ movement in his youth had left some residue: he was apparently disappointed by the fact that the miners’ leader Will Lawther considered the NUM’s role to be the defence of workers against management, not pursuit of the possibility of its being the management.

Bevan assured voters in 1959 that ‘when they have got over the delirium of the television, when they realise that their new homes that they have been put into are mortgaged to the hilt, when they realise that the moneylender has been elevated to the highest position in the land, when they realise that [this] is a vulgar society of which no decent person could be proud’, and that this society is ‘unable to exploit the resources of their scientists because they are prevented by the greed of their capitalism from doing so’, they will find that ‘the challenge of modern society’ can only be met by socialism – that, in fact, ‘we represent the future.’ They didn’t, but Bevan’s future would have been more attractive than the one we now live in.