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Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan Paperback – 28 Feb 2016
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'a worthy successor and useful corrective to Foot's...tome...admirable'--Peter Catterall, Parliamentary History June 2016
About the Author
Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds is Lecturer in politics at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a practising barrister. He is the author of Attlee: A Life in Politics (I.B.Tauris).
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Although the achievements of the postwar Labour government seem a long way away, it deserves to be remembered as a time when Britain overcame its class-based prejudices and genuinely tried to work towards a better world. Bevan was a living representative of that spirit - a fiery Welshman from the valleys growing up in poverty who achieved pre-eminence through sheer effort of will, brilliant speeches and chutzpah. He was very different in terms of character from the then Prime Minister, the very upper class Clement Attlee, but he nonetheless managed to work as part of a government comprised of personalities across all classes.
Bevan had a unique ability to inspire audiences through brilliant public communication. Very few recordings exist of him in public performance, but YouTube offers a few in the public domain. It was not just his fiery personality that moved audiences; with the help of great speechwriters he knew how to use rhetoric to persuade as well as enthuse. There has been no one like him, either before or since - except, perhaps, Tony Benn at his best. Sometimes he upset as many people as he inspired; there were at least two occasions (notably when he referred to the Conservatives as "vermin") when he put his foot in the diplomatic mire and had to carefully extract it with as little damage as possible.
As a subject for a biography, he would appeal to anyone. What a pity, therefore, that Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds's revisionist work reads so turgidly. Using new research and adopting an equivocal perspective, he portrays Bevan as someone whose impetuosity and passion impeded as well as benefited his career prospects. This might be true, but the inescapable fact remains that he was a true socialist - someone accessible to everyone. This aspect of his character is not really well brought out, as Thomas-Symonds buries himself beneath mountains of hard fact rather than empathizing with his subject. As a result the book reads rather like a worthy but dull academic tome rather than a genuine attempt to resurrect a great politician from the past for contemporary readers.
A fascinating biography of a fascinating man, whose life was cut far too short. He was a veteran of the Attlee government, as well as Labour politics before and during the war. He was brave enough to oppose Churchill on many issues during the war. (He remained outside the coalition government).
A man of principle, who could also sometimes compromise on certain issues, for which he was criticised by what I would dare to call lesser men.
Harold Wilson used to be a "Bevanite", but seemed to desert that cause when it didn't seem to lead anywhere. It would have been fascinating to see which of the two would have got the upper hand in the 1960s, if Bevan had not died in 1960.
The book prompted me to go back to re-read Jenny Lee's "My life with Nye", which I found much more insightful.
Read this if you want to understand the political history of the Labour movement--otherwise give it a miss.
Bevan was cut from a different cloth to Atlee’s upper-middle class Edwardian origins. Bevan, raised in a Welsh mining family, was marinated in that nation’s traditions but did not speak Welsh. For him, the problems of the Welsh working class were the same as the English working class. He considered himself a champion of the British working class. Though Atlee and Bevan represent different traditions within the Labour movement, each has given much to this country by way of social and economic improvement.
Bevan’s socialism was of a very British cut. An auto-didact and widely read, with broad intellectual interests, he was nonetheless of a practical bent and wrote only one book. It is often claimed that the British are unintellectual but this has always been something of an overstatement. The British have been intensely interested in ideas and their practical application. Though Bevan’s intellectual vision was nothing original, and he was probably less clever than the likes of Ralph Milliband and other critics of ‘parliamentary socialism’, it was he, and not they, who got things done.
Bevan’s towering achievement was the foundation of the NHS. Till this day, it is impossible for any Tory government to dare say that they intend to privatise it. Not even Margaret Thatcher challenged the principle of free health care at the point of delivery. Bevan’s achievement was to change the country for good. His tenure as Housing Minister saw fewer accomplishments, on account of the government’s failure to source the necessary raw materials, a failure of the Labour government generally, as much as it was Bevan’s. He might have achieved more. Bevan never became leader of the Labour Party so he will always remain, in part, a great might have been. His failure to realise his potential was in part on account of his confrontational style, which needlessly alienated potential allies as well as enemies. In some of his battles, like that with Hugh Gaitskell and his austerity budget’s raising charges on prescriptions and dental treatment to finance Britain’s participation in the Korean War, he was vindicated. But, otherwise, his temperament worked against him.
On the subject of his temper, Bevan’s reputation rests too much on one notoriously intemperate speech when he referred to the Tories as vermin. Right-wing critics have made much of this, as the epitome of the left’s supposed bigotry and intolerance. The first thing to observe is that the left holds no monopoly on political invective. Second, Bevan’s social circle was broad. He did not keep company with people who agreed with him and enjoyed debating and arguing with friends with different points of view – that included Lord Beaverbrook, of all people.
Overall, this is a sympathetic but impartial assessment of Bevan, who remains a totem of purity for many contemporary Labour activists. That said, a man of principle has to use the political tricks of expediency and compromise to get things done. That is what this biography shows. When Bevan was able to balance principle and pragmatism, he achieved great things. When he failed to strike this balance, he didn’t. That’s worth bearing in mind for anyone who wants to span the gap between principles and practice. Turning words into actions is not easy. It’s one of the hardest journeys to make, as Bevan knew all too well. As he himself said, you shouldn’t go into politics or public life unless you have a very thick skin.