Where is Bevan Going?
A campaign is afoot outside Labour Party circles to build up Mr. Bevan. A typical comment on him was that of a political columnist of the Empire News on Sunday, December 9th.
“Nye was superb on Wednesday. The speech was witty, persuasive, colourful and trenchant. It held the House enthralled By comparison, Hugh Gaitskell sounded like a tired and irritable schoolmaster.”
Of course one reason for this boost of Bevan is to score off Gaitskell, and make trouble in the Labour Party—it takes attention off the Tories’ troubles over Eden. But there is more to it than that. Some weeks ago, the Economist, which owes no particular allegiance to the Tory Party, being more concerned with the wider problem of keeping British Capitalism safe, wrote that Bevan “might be capable of being a very good Foreign Secretary indeed.” (Economist 6/10/56.)
A writer in the Tory Sunday Times (9/12/56) paid his tribute to the “sheer artistry” of Bevan’s speech on Suez and added the significant comment that Mr. Bevan “comes out of the crisis with a new stature, not only among his own party”
A day or two earlier the Daily Mail (7/12/56) had featured an article by Mr. Henry Fairlie in which he conceded to Bevan many qualities of a great Foreign Secretary and remarked that the idea of Bevan as Prime Minister in a Coalition Government had been publicly ventilated during the recent Suez crisis.
We can be sure that it is not only Bevan’s speeches and his enhanced authority in the Labour Party that have caused this speculation about his future as Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary; another factor must have been the Suez fiasco. It has long been appreciated by Britain’s rulers that it is very unwise, if not positively dangerous, to go to war without first securing a large measure of agreement and support, in the country as a whole if possible, and certainly at the too, either through a Coalition Government (as in the two world wars) or by consultation as in the Korean War. Sir Anthony Eden failed to get this and with the Labour Party working up opposition to the whole venture the Government’s chances of success in Suez were inevitably lessened. Bevan, as the Labour Party’s choice for future Foreign Secretary, thus becomes of increased importance—added to which is his undoubted ability to influence the workers in a way his leader Gaitskell cannot.
Bevan’s Labour admirers, and his virulent detractors in Tory ranks, may think it absurd that Bevan could be considered as a useful instrument for British Capitalism in the critical times it now faces, but this is only because they have failed to consider the facts of Labour Party history in war and crisis.
British Capitalism has been singularly lucky in its Labour Party over the years: though doubtless “luck ’ is not the proper word for the way in which a movement of rebellious discontent that was at first feared has been neutralised and tamed until it has become an indispensable prop for the existing social system. Through an astute use of flattery and honours, the appointment of trade unionists as Justices of the Peace and to innumerable official committees, the propertied class have been able to rely on the Labour Party in every big crisis. The first World War produced its Tory-Liberal-Labour Coalition Government with full Labour Party and trade union support for recruiting and the war effort—and this was repeated as a matter of course in the second war. The financial and commercial crisis of 1931 brought top Labour Leaders, including MacDonald, Snowden, and Thomas, into the “national” government though this time the Labour Party was split and the rest went into impotent opposition.
And through all the ups and downs of the past 40 years the propertied class have weathered the storms and kept their position far better than propertied groups in many other countries; escaping the violent upheavals of German Hitlerism, Italian Fascism, Franco’s civil war and Russian Stalinism and this comparatively peaceful passage of British Capitalism has been achieved with indispensable aid from men whose politically turbulent early careers gave them a hold on working class loyalty, men like Aneurin Bevan. It is often overlooked that the late Lloyd George (whom Lenin saw as a possible leader of revolution in Britain) was once more loathed and feared by the landed and monied men for his savage demagogic speeches and policies than ever Bevan has been. And MacDonald, Snowden, Cripps, Bevin and Attlee started their upward careers in the Labour movement preaching doctrines that induced detestation and apprehension in Capitalist circles.
How does Bevan shape up for such a role? He has most of the attributes—a brilliant speaker, able to arouse emotions, ambitious for the Premiership, unfettered by attachment to any rigid theory, and with the reputation (unmerited of course) of being a man of peace and friend of the workers. Though he supported the second world war and the Korean war, and was an active supporter of the Labour Government’s great re-armament programme and the Atom bomb, his followers can yet see him as a dependable enemy of war. Above all he has the asset of being more enthusiastically received by masses of workers than is any other figure in the Labour Party or trade union movement.
His potential usefulness to Capitalism does not rest on the unlikely supposition that he would desert the Labour Party, but on the recognition that in certain kinds of crisis a Labour Government alone or in Coalition is the best insurance Capitalism can have lest worse befall.
To keep its popularity with the members, the Labour Party would have to offer sops such as a few more schemes of nationalisation and some social reforms, but British Capitalism was long ago taught by experience that some price has to be paid for security.
And those who feared the early rebel Bevan have had plenty of assurances that he is not out to destroy Capitalism.
Speaking in the House of Commons on July 2, 1951, he put his view that “ if there is a social purpose to be accomplished of any importance, either the State should do it or the State should make it possible for private enterprise to do it; but what the State should not do is to be inert and to surround private enterprise with such inhibitions that private enterprise cannot do it.’’ (Hansard, July 2, 1951. Col. 1915).
He repeated it in an article in the Daily Express (16 and 17 February, 1956) in the form of an assurance that his conception (“dismiss it as Socialist if you like ”) comprises “a thorough-going programme of enlarged public ownership ” but “does not go on to say that private enterprise has no part to play in modern society.” In 1949 in a speech at Newport he made the claim that “Socialism” is good for business men.
“Even private enterprise works better under the beneficent guidance of a Socialist government. That proves that Socialism is a good thing and it is beginning to dawn on some business men.” – (Daily Herald, 28th March, 1949.)
Of course Bevan’s mixture of State Capitalism, private Capitalism, and social reform, is nothing to do with Socialism. He is not a Socialist and never indicates in his speeches and writings that he ever clearly saw what it is all about. Like Lloyd George, whom he is said to take as a model, he is a nationalist, believing that British Capitalism can solve its problems and prosper under the right party and right Prime Minister—Bevan. He never thinks in terms of international action for Socialism by the working class, but always in terms of the place of Britain in the World: as he wrote in the Daily Express (February 17, 1956) “in the name of Britain and the hope that she will once more play a leading role in world history.”
Is this a Prophecy?
The reader may wonder and ask if we are forecasting what must be. The answer is No! Nothing like this has to happen. Capitalism does not have to continue and it does not have to happen that a Labour Party shall help to save it again as it has done before. There does not have to be a working class so enmeshed in leader worship that they can be counted on to follow. There can be instead a growing Socialist movement, destroying leader worship as it advances, working internationally against all Capitalist groups and their wars and working for Socialism. There will be no place in it for policies like those of Aneurin Bevan.