Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Bevan was born in Tredegar, Monmouthshire, the son of David Bevan, who was a miner. Both Bevan's parents were Nonconformists: his father was a Baptist and his mother a Methodist. One of ten children, Bevan was unsuccessful at school and his academic performance was so bad that his headmaster made him repeat a year. At the age of thirteen Aneurin left school and began working in the local Tytryst Colliery. David Bevan had been a supporter of the Liberal Party in his youth, but was converted to socialism by the writings of Robert Blatchford in the Clarion and joined the Independent Labour Party
His son also joined the Tredegar branch of the South Wales Miners' Federation and became a trade union activist: he was head of his local Miners' Lodge at only nineteen. Bevan became a well-known local orator and was seen by his employers, the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company, as a revolutionary. The manager of the colliery found an excuse to get him sacked. However, with the support of the Miners' Federation, the case was judged as one of victimisation and the company was forced to re-employ him.
In 1919 he won a scholarship to the Central Labour College in London, sponsored by the South Wales Miners' Federation. At the college he gained his life-long respect for Karl Marx. Reciting long passages by William Morris, Bevan gradually began to overcome the stammer that he had since he was a child.
He returned home in 1921 to find his job was lost, because the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company refused to employ him. He did not find alternative work until 1924 in the Bedwellty Colliery, and then after ten months, it was closed down. Bevan had to endure another year of unemployment and in February 1925, his much loved father died of pneumoconiosis.
In 1926 he found work again, this time as a paid union official. His wage of £5 a week was paid by the members of the local Miners' Lodge. His new job arrived in time for him to head the local miners against the colliery companies in what would become the General Strike. When the General Strike started on May 3 1926, Bevan soon emerged as one of the leaders of the South Wales miners. The miners remained on strike for six months. Bevan was largely responsible for the distribution of strike pay in Tredegar and the formation of the Council of Action, an organisation that helped to raise money and provided food for the miners.
In 1928 he won a seat on Monmouthshire County Council. With that success he was picked as the Labour Party candidate for Ebbw Vale (displacing the sitting MP), and easily won it in the 1929 General Election. In Parliament he soon became noticed as a harsh critic of those he felt opposed the working man, including Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, as well as Ramsay MacDonald and Margaret Bondfield from his own party (for her unwillingness to increase unemployment benefits). He had solid support from his constituency, being one of the few Labour MPs to be unopposed in the 1931 General Election.
He married fellow socialist MP, Jennie Lee in 1934. He was an early opponent of Fascism, arguing for British support for the socialists in Spain and visiting the country. In 1936 he joined the board of the new socialist newspaper the Tribune. His agitations for a united socialist front of all parties of the left (including the Communist Party of Great Britain) led to his brief expulsion from the Labour Party in March to November 1939 (along with Cripps and Trevelyan). However, he was readmitted in November 1939 after agreeing "to refrain from conducting or taking part in campaigns in opposition to the declared policy of the Party."
He was a strong critic of the policies of Neville Chamberlain, arguing that his old enemy Winston Churchill should be given power. During the war he was one of the leaders of the left in the Commons, opposing the wartime Coalition government. Bevan opposed the heavy censorship imposed on radio and newspapers and wartime Defence Regulation 18B that gave the Home Secretary the powers to intern citizens without trial. Bevan called for the nationalisation of the coal industry and advocated the opening of a Second Front in Western Europe in order to help the Soviet Union in its fight with Germany. Churchill responded by calling Bevan the Minister of Disease.
Bevan believed that the Second World War would give Britain the opportunity to create a new society. He often quoted Karl Marx who had said in 1885: "The redeeming feature of war is that it puts a nation to the test. As exposure to the atmosphere reduces all mummies to instant dissolution, so war passes supreme judgment upon social systems that have outlived their vitality." At the beginning of the 1945 General Election campaign Bevan told his audience: "We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders. We enter this campaign at this general election, not merely to get rid of the Tory majority. We want the complete political extinction of the Tory Party."
After Labour victory in the General Election of 1945 Bevan was surprisingly appointed by the Prime Minister Clement Attlee as Minister of Health. In this Parliament Labour had a sufficient majority to push through its Welfare State, despite constant attacks on Bevan from the Conservatives. In 1946 the National Insurance Act was passed, abolishing the last remnants of the Poor law and putting in place more generous unemployment, sickness, maternity and widows' benefits and better state pensions, all funded by compulsory contributions from employer and employee. This course of action had been recommended by the Beveridge report of 1944 entitled Social Insurance and Allied Services.
In 1948, after opposition from the British Medical Association had been overcome, the National Health Service Act created the National Health Service. The "appointed day" for the commencement of the Act was July 5. People in Britain were provided with free diagnosis and treatment of illness, at home or in hospital, as well as dental and ophthalmic services. As Minister of Health, Bevan was now in charge of 2,688 hospitals in England and Wales.
Despite his successes Bevan was down-graded to Minister of Labour in 1951, but soon resigned in protest at Hugh Gaitskell's introduction of prescription charges (for dental care and spectacles), in order to meet the financial demands imposed on the budget by the Korean War. Two other Ministers, John Freeman and Harold Wilson resigned at the same time.
Although out of the Cabinet Bevan had initiated a split within the Labour Party between the right and the left. For the next five years Bevan was the leader of the left-wing of the Labour Party, who became known as Bevanites. They criticised high defence expenditure (especially over nuclear weapons) and opposed the reformist policies of Clement Attlee. When the first British Hydrogen bomb was exploded in 1955, Bevan led a revolt of 57 Labour MPs who abstained on a key vote. The Parliamentary Labour Party voted 141 to 113 to withdraw the whip from him, although such was his popularity that it had to be restored within a month.
After the 1955 general election, Attlee retired as leader. Bevan contested the leadership against both Morrison and Labour right-winger Hugh Gaitskell but it was Gaitskell who emerged victorious. Bevan's remark that "I know the right kind of political Leader for the Labour Party is a kind of desiccated calculating machine" was assumed to refer to Gaitskell, although Bevan denied it (commenting upon Gaitskell's record as Chancellor of the Exchequer as having "proved" this!). However, Gaitskell was prepared to make Bevan Shadow Colonial Secretary, and then Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1956. Bevan dismayed many of his supporters when, speaking at the 1957 Labour Party conference, he decried unilateral nuclear disarmament, saying "It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber". (This statement is often misconstrued. Bevan argued that unilateralism would result in Britain's loss of allies. In Bevan's metaphor, the nakedness comes from the lack of allies, not the lack of weapons).
In 1959 despite suffering from terminal cancer, Bevan was elected as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. He could do little in his new role and died the next year. His last speech in the House of Commons, in which Bevan referred to the difficulties of persuading the electorate to support a policy which would make them less well-off in the short term but more prosperous in the long term, was much quoted in the years after.
|Minister of Health|
|Minister of Labour and National Service|
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