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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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.
Occasionally the book gets bogged down in detail about the actual in-fighting with the Doctors, and also about some of Nye's early life, but in the main it is readable and informative, stressing that he was a pragmatist and that he had two really important loves - Jennie Lee and the Labour Party. I happen to live close to Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly where Jennie sprang from. HE must have been there as well, now and again "And did these feet, in ancient times...?" I wonder to myself, if ever I go to either of these places.
I would guess that the author, a Labour MP, is a lover of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is of the authentic Labour tradition and belief, and one imagines that one of his heroes would be Nye Bevan. This book should be compulsory reading for all Labour MPs.
I confess to being much moved when I read the chapter about his death, and how sad is the picture of Nye (barely recognisable) in his last year with Nehru! But "Sit ei terra levis! Vivat"
A wonderful book about the man to whom my generation owes everything!
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