The death of Aneurin Bevan was a terrible blow to the Labour Party. Here, we were told, was a man of humble birth who night have been Prime Minister. A man who burnt with a sincere passion against the world’s harshness and injustice. But did Bevan bear any responsibility for making the world what it is? Truly, Labour have need of him now, of his scornful wit which could hold the Tories in sullen silence—or have them laughing at themselves. More even than that, Labour need his ability to unite the party in acceptance of policies which as individuals they may find distasteful. Bevan was a master at this because many Labour Party members believed that, if Nye could say with his hand on his heart that a certain course was regrettable but necessary, then it must be so. So it was at Brighton in 1957, when he made his famous speech on the H-bomb which shocked his followers and shattered the movement which up to then had been known as the Bevanites.
Now why should the death of one man be so disastrous to a party which has hundreds of thousands of other members? It seems too obvious to say that the party which can offer the most attractive leaders usually gets the most votes. Since the heyday of the Attlee era, Labour have lacked appealing leaders. No more Ernie Bevin, with his rough manner and the straying aitches. No more Herb Morrison, smooth and, eloquent. Bevan seemed to be the only outstanding one left. And now that be has gone, Labour are asking themselves: What shall we do without him?
A man like Bevan is important to a party which offers itself as a potential administrator of capitalism. At election time, it must angle for the floating voter—and there is no more tempting bait than a colourful leader, to answer the tricky questions which stump the candidate, to shake hands all round and tell everyone how worthy he is, and to explain away the hard facts of capitalist life and persuade the voters to bear the insecurity and the squalor of the system which his party wish to organise. He must justify the promises forgotten or broken, and skate over the stirring enunciation of principles which were upheld at the last election and are being quietly contradicted in this. He must, in fact, be all that the politically ignorant expect a leader to be.
Bevan filled this role to perfection. First of all, he had what they call the common touch. Who better than a one time down-trodden miner to justify the anti-working class policies of his party? One of these was Bevan’s pet, the National Health Service. This must have gained a lot of support for Labour in 1945, for many people thought that the scheme would entitle them to free access to the best possible medical treatment—and who wouldn’t vote for something like that? In fact, National Health was a rearrangement of working-class poverty, which made no difference to the fact that the surest way of getting decent medical attention is to be able to pay for it. A royal birth still sends a whole clutch of doctors hurrying to the bedside. And Bevan himself died in the care of a titled personal physician. Is that an indication of what he thought of the National Health Service? The record does not end there, Bevan was a member of the Labour government when they were busy breaking strikes and getting involved in the slaughter of workers in Korea and other parts of the world. This was the government which promoted the great swindle of nationalisation, which made the shareholders more secure than before and left the workers no better off. Yet—and here is the swindle—this was said, by Bevan and others, to be Socialism.
True, Bevan sometimes produced a scathing condemnation of the Tories. He was good at this—he made a mess of Selwyn Lloyd over Suez. Yet he could be nationalistic when he wanted. Macmillan, in his House of Commons tribute, called him a patriot. This is what he had to say at Bradford on 17th October, 1953:
Let the British nation take the position it is entitled to, the moral leadership of the world. That leadership does not belong across the Atlantic because America is being dominated by the same kind of mentality as dominates the government of Great Britain.
He could be scathing on the Conservatives’ colonial policy—yet, for example, it was his party which imprisoned Nkrumah. (Strangely, Bevan forgot this and in the debate on Cyprus on 19th March, 1959, he actually attacked the Tories for imprisoning the Ghana Prime Minister. The Tories had a good laugh and Bevan had to withdraw—which, of course, he did without turning a hair). He could make a touching plea for peace and security—yet he insisted that any future Labour government must have the right to make any weapons which the emergencies of capitalism may force onto them. This is what he said about the H-bomb at the Scarborough Conference in 1958:
“We are not pledging ourselves to making it. We are not pledging ourselves not to making it. We don’t know what kind of weapons we need. We must leave ourselves some room for manoeuvre.”
There is no reason to pin this sort of inconsistency on to Bevan alone. For he was only one of the many leaders of capitalism. Such men must have at least two faces—one for their public, always responsible but kindly, suggesting that its owner is incapable of hurting a fly; and the other for: the Cabinet Room realities of capitalism, for the brutal and inhuman actions and decisions which they must always be taking. It is never pleasant to hear of a death. But this must be said: Bevan played the game with the rest. He played it better than most. That is why they will remember him for a long time.