Top critical review
Dull Biography of one of the Labour Party's Greatest Figures
7 August 2016
Aneurin Bevan's greatest achievement was the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. Despite the attempts of successive governments to dismantle it in the name of "efficiency," it still remains a unique institution committed to free health care at the point of delivery. It is one of the few organizations dedicated to socialist ideals, drawing no distinctions based on class, race, or gender.
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.