Theatre Review – Nye -Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

The celebrated Welsh actor, Michael Sheen, takes the lead role in a new play about the celebrated Welsh politician, Aneurin (‘Nye’) Bevan. With a script by Tim Price and under the direction of the National Theatre’s artistic lead Rufus Norris, the scenario has Sheen, dressed in pyjamas and close to death in a hospital bed, going back in memory through the key moments of his life. A series of scenes, sometimes surreal in their framing, show him progress from stammering schoolboy to coal miner, from trade union activist to rebel Labour MP, and finally from the back benches of parliament to government minister overseeing the establishment of the NHS.

The play has already had what can be called ‘rave reviews’. The Times declared that ‘Sheen burns with genuine passion’, the i paper called it ‘a taut and fluid triumph’, and other words used to describe it have been ‘spectacular’ ‘mesmerising’ and ‘unrepeatable’. The full house of around 2,000 at the performance I attended were indeed mesmerised, as was I, by Sheen’s performance and indeed by the performance of the whole cast of actors around him, taking parts such as Bevan’s wife, Jennie Lee, his best and most longstanding friend, Archie Lush, and his bitter political adversary, Winston Churchill. One could not but be powerfully drawn into Bevan’s journey, both mental and political, and in particular into the leading role he played in setting up the ‘welfare state’ immediately following the Second World War as Labour government Minister for Health and Housing. His role in this, and particularly in the NHS, is the play’s main raison d’être, so that even the staunchly conservative Telegraph had only words of praise for Sheen’s performance and went so far as to refer to the production as ‘a valiant and valuable affirmation of the NHS’.

The question of course that a reviewer in the Socialist Standard must ask, even while sharing the widely positive view of the production itself, is to what extent its unmitigated praise of Bevan and his politics is justified. Prior to the formation of the NHS in 1948, workers who could afford it generally contributed to various small insurance policies to provide a form of insurance for medical treatment. But many did not. And this was cumbersome and inefficient, and above all a hindrance to workers’ productivity. It was decided by the wartime coalition government, therefore, in line with the recommendations of the 1942 Beveridge Report, to reorganise the health system under central control. Both main parties, Labour and Tory, committed to such a reform in their 1945 election manifestos, and so when Labour won an overwhelming victory in that election, it fell to that party to put it into operation.

The justification for this and other welfare reforms was summed up in the Beveridge Report:

‘Social insurance and the allied services, as they exist today, are conducted by a complex of disconnected administrative organs, proceeding on different principles, doing invaluable service but at a cost in money and trouble and anomalous treatment of identical problems for which there is no justification.’

In other words, it was going to be more efficient and more cost effective for the services in question to be streamlined and brought directly under state control. So while no one would deny the famous adage of Bevan’s, repeated in the play, that ‘no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of a lack of means’, it has to be borne in mind that the main rationale of this reform was to make the system of workers selling their energies to an employer for a wage or salary more efficient and not first and foremost to benefit those workers.

The Socialist Party’s frequent characterisation of the NHS as ‘a cheap back-to-work service’ or a ‘way of patching up workers’ may seem a little over-cynical, especially as the nation-wide hospital and free medical advice and treatment system that was set up under the supervision of Bevan as Labour health minister in 1948 was clearly of benefit to workers who no longer had to find the money to pay for medical treatment. But, that said, there can be no doubt that it was not introduced with benevolence in mind. Indeed, such an arrangement was soon mirrored in various other countries whatever the professed ideology of the governments in office there. The fact is that ‘welfare’ reforms were necessary to guard against social breakdown, a situation potentially detrimental to capitalism and its profit-making imperative.

Yet of course, as many reforms, the NHS never worked quite as intended. The ‘free’ health service soon became unpredictably ‘expensive’ and certain charges (eg, for prescriptions) were introduced, and it has rarely not been in a state of crisis. Today’s increasing waiting lists, difficulties in securing GP appointments and overwhelmed emergency units show how the economic forces of capitalism constantly beguile the intentions of well-meaning reformers such as Bevan.

There can be little doubt about Bevan’s sincerity, at least in the early and middle part of his life and career, as focused on in this production. He was a spellbinding orator not afraid to be seen as a rebel and to use the strongest terms possible to state his credo (once famously referring to the Tories as ‘lower than vermin’). But, in the end, his was the idealism of someone who threw his energy into political life under the impression that capitalism could be adjusted to work in the interests of the working class. And what, as a celebration of the man, this play fails to convey is that this impression was a mistaken one and indeed that Bevan himself, in later years, moved from expressions of triumphant idealism towards pragmatic acceptance of capitalist politics and its limitations. It was in a private pay-bed in an NHS hospital in fact that he ended his days, the bed from which we are taken in this play through the key moments of his life. But thoroughly recommended as a spectacle.


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