on 27 April 2010
Nye Bevan's life story is one of heroic struggle not only to work his way up to free himself but also to drag up those of his class. He fought to keep his mind sharp and educated during the days he slogged his guts out in the mines. He fought for his own dignity and that of the working class. The romance of this story is expressed brilliantly by Michael Foot's impeccable turn of phrase. Not only do we read a great story but we also gain a great insight into the history of that era. This history is meticulously researched and substantiated. It is brilliantly argued both by Foot and through the words and actions of Bevan himself.
The period in the run up to the war saw many attacks on the living standards of the ordinary working people of Britain. Many were condemned to grinding poverty. None more so than the Miners. Bevan eloquently expressed these grievances. He was a staunch critic of his own Labour party (it's "illiberal, oligarchic methods of party machine") and Parliament ("The House of commons has reduced my people to such impotence what are we to do? You have deprived them of any voice any where....") He was a refreshing antidote to the vain, power-hungry opportunist careerists who have always bedevilled the movement by selling out when crunch time came. The leaders took to any means to stamp out dissent as they often still do. It is interesting to see some of the historical parallels with today best illustrated by Bevan's own words:
"One of the dangers of the sort of machine we have created is that we have made it comparatively easy for a large number of people to acquire prestige and status. Our Machine is more bureaucratic then democratic. The principle of selection from above has taken the place of election from below. If you get selection from above you always get the Yes-men."
"How can parliament be the national sounding board that it ought to be when its voice is drowned by the vulgar cacophony preferred by the popular press."
Bevan's portraits of other important politicians of the day are as illuminatingly critical. Here he is on Anthony Eden: "Beneath the sophistication of his appearance and manner he has all the unplumbable stupidities and unawareness of his class and type." And on Neville Chamberlain "He does not so much as rise to the occasion as reduce it to his own stature." The argument is sometimes put forward by his apologists that Chamberlain and the other appeasers gave us time to prepare for war. This is simply not true as they in fact left us almost completely unprepared for war. There was no mobilisation towards war in Britain whereas Hitler was busy preparing and conquering. Chamberlains role in administering the means test causing untold suffering in poor families also makes me feel no sympathy for the man and for me validates Bevan's attack.
Bevan and others on the left detested the position taken by the British Government on the Spanish civil war. French Prime Minister Leon Blum was widely blamed for this position at the time but it appears it was British influence that led to the decision not to help the Spanish Government thus allowing Fascist Franco's eventual take over. This is all elaborated and explained in the book with the relevant evidence to back it up.
Aneurin Bevan was the greatest debater of his day who easily matched and in my opinion surpassed the oratory of the great Winston Churchill. He was fiercely critical of appeasement and capitulation to Fascists (which he saw as being worth armies to Hitler). Foot gives great insights into this important period where Nye and the left of the Labour party struggle with their own party being threatened with expulsion while also at loggerheads with the Tories. Many Tories were willing to praise Mussolini and Hitler seeing them as patriotic and maintaining order. Churchill himself at one point even praised both Mussolini and Hitler although to his credit his position soon changed. Lord Halifax sought to make a settlement with Hitler believing the war was un-winnable.
Throughout the Second World War Nye remained critical of Government policy where others quietly acquiesced. In Bevan's own words: "Not even the supreme emergency of war justifies the abandonment of critical judgement." He was criticised for this, for not getting behind the war effort. This was a deeply unfair criticism as he was in fact fully behind the effort. His criticisms pointed to strategy which had been disastrous for the British in much of the fighting. He was also a proponent of a second front in 1941 and 1942 to help the Russians where the main part of the war was being fought. Clausewitz had given the maxim "concentrate on the principle enemy". The principle enemy was fighting in the Soviet Union at the time. The British chiefs of staff saw the battle for Russia as a side show and believed the Soviet Union was doomed.
Bevan was also critical of Churchill's decision to open up a front in Italy. Churchill had proclaimed this as "The soft underbelly" of the Nazi empire. Bevan responded "When we get to Italy we may find that it has acquired formidable armour." He wasn't the only one critical of this. The American chiefs of staff thought this was a waste (Douglas Macarthur is quoted as saying so). They wanted a front opened up in France immediately, a notion British General Montgomery was in favour of. This would have been the shortest way into Germany and in all likelihood the war would have ended sooner and with fewer lives lost.
The industrial war effort also came under Bevan's scrutiny. British productive capacity was slow to catch up with Germany. Inferior Tanks and equipment were costing lives and battles. Coal mining was suffering set backs (including unofficial strikes in 1943!). All these industries should have been nationalised and ran according to plans for the War. Instead profits and waste were still being made. Bevan's attacks on the Government and on Churchill were justified, in fact necessary. Blundering and inert leadership very nearly cost us the war. Bevan's statement on starting the Tribune newspaper illuminates his position:
"We shall expose every example of the failure to apply the principles of a dynamic democracy to the problem of war. We shall show how the inefficiency of British industry, the failure of our military intelligence, the flat footedness of the army command, the debility of our propaganda to enemy countries and the short comings of our grand strategy are due, in one form or another, to the fact that Britain is still controlled by those who think, consciously or unconsciously, that ordinary men and women are there to be Governed and not to Govern"
Both Bevan and Foot were admirers of Churchill but criticised him where such criticism was due. As a strategists Churchill was incompetent, many of his own generals resented his interferences which resulted directly in disaster in Norway, North Africa, Greece and Tobruk. Michael Foot summed it up in a later essay : " Churchill made many errors in the conduct of the war, and he had many strokes of luck, and sometimes the misjudgements and the good fortune combined to enable him - and the rest of us- to escape from some wretched predicament...Churchill was a romantic and it was that quality more than any other which served him and us so well in 1940 "
Bevan embodied the wave of revolutionary ideals that swept the country towards the end of the war. While on the other hand Churchill represented the old order and desperately tried to cling on to it. Change was afoot and desired by people sick of the old order; sick of slums, unemployment, poverty and war. Town planning, jobs, healthcare and homes for heroes (not like the betrayal of this in 1918) were the order of the day. Churchill tried to make these post war issues into a vote of confidence for himself and the war effort, he personalised it and tried to use idolatry to win the day. The Tories lost by-elections in the run up to the end of the war while coalition proposals were put forward for post war planning. However Labour decided to stand independently and went on to win a land slide.
Michael Foot died aged 96 on 3rd March 2010. David Cameron talked of him being amongst the last in a golden age of political giants and great orators. This is one point I can agree on with the Conservative leader. This is still by far the best biography of Bevan out there. If you are worried about bias and objectivity think of it this way: Foot substantiates and argues clearly as well as maintaining the romance of his subject's story. All history is filtered through the perceptions and ideologies of those writing it whether you like it or not. Many historians will claim to be objective, unattached and unbiased in their approach which is a deeply dishonest or deluded notion. You may strive to be objective but given that any event has innumerable facts and interpretations attached to it mere selection of these gives rise to bias. Foot is honest in that he describes himself as a hero worshipper (how many historians are this honest?) Iain Kershaw points out in his landmark two volume biography of Hitler that the manner in which biographies are written over personalises complex historical developments, over emphasising the role of the individual and ignoring or playing down the social and political context. Foot's deep analysis and understanding of the political and social contexts of the period mitigates this effect.
If you are interested in the history of this period or in Nye Bevan himself then you can find no more enlightening, better written and interesting account. This is Michael Foot's literary masterpiece. It has long been renowned as one of the all time greatest political biographies and deserves that reputation. After reading this book one can't help but wish that Nye was around today to invigorate politics and bring his sharp intellectual mind to bear on the problems of today and to attack our lame duck leaders who do too little for ordinary working people. No doubt he would detest modern politics with New Labour and the current state of the trade unions as well as the general direction the country is going. This book and Nye himself are a testament against: Out of touch politicians, lack of democracy (not only in Government but in all institutions), corporate take over, privatisation, driving down of working conditions and wages and the contempt for and lack of skills. It stands against a whole society directed more and more to create passive units of production and consumption. Bevan believed in bettering himself in a profound way. He would have hated the quashing of individual self determination, spontaneity and humanity; preventing the development of ones potential. Nye was a great voice for those who were disenfranchised and trampled upon; a debater who could cut through the spin. I miss the principled, fearless and intellectual voice that in our modern day age of superficial sound bite politics there just isn't room for.
I'll end this as I begun with Bevan's own words:
"Either we restore the healthy vigour of parliament which comes with independence, discussion and criticism or we submit to the corporate rule of big business and collaborationist Labour leaders."
"It is from the unencumbered minds of ordinary people that vigorous ideas will emerge."