The Magazine

The Other Welsh Wizard

Labour's Left once had a leader.

Aug 29, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 46 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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by Clare and Francis Becket

Haus, 167 pp., £9.99

THE SOCIALIST MOVEMENT, IT was once said, was "the only movement in history that wants power only in order to give it away." You might wish to inquire: Once said by whom? The claim seems a preposterous one from several angles, including the perspective of the Stalin terror, the capitulation of social democracy in the war hysteria of 1914, the dreary rule of the Eastern European "People's Democracies," or the ossified, bureaucratic, union-dominated welfare statism that was given its quietus by Margaret Thatcher and her emulators in other countries about a quarter-century ago.

But the speaker in this case was Aneurin Bevan, one of the moral and political giants of the European Left. The eclipse of socialism has partly occluded the memory of a number of great individuals--I would cite Willy Brandt in Germany, Bruno Kreisky in Austria, Claude Bourdet in France--who took part in the emancipation and education of the working class, spoke up for the colonial "subjects" of the European empires, and resisted both Nazism and communism. It doesn't do to forget examples like these.

One of the reasons that the word "communitarian" sounds so sickly and vapid--apart from the fact that it is sickly and vapid--is its inauthentic nostalgia. A sense of community and solidarity is either innate or it is nothing: If you have to call something a community these days ("the business community," "the Hispanic community," best and worst of all, "the intelligence community") then it almost certainly isn't one. Aneurin Bevan (the first name is pronounced A-nye-rin and was generally shortened to "Nye") came from the tightest-knit community of them all: the coal miners of the Welsh valleys. Disciplined by the hard, collective battle to chisel the anthracite from the rock, and further cemented together by their close-quarter living in often-isolated pit villages, the mineworkers and their union were once described, by a respectful Tory, as "The Brigade of Guards of the Labour Movement."

This was not just because of their celebrated militancy and esprit de corps. In miners' institutes and working men's clubs in the Welsh valleys, great libraries were painstakingly set up, concerts performed, and choirs and orchestras organized. Bertrand Russell's first book, about the German Social Democrats, showed how the party and its unions were capable of providing an alternative society, with everything from sports teams to vacations, and of educating their more talented members to a university standard. Welsh Labour could say the same. It was this cultural dimension--of the self-taught and self-confident working man--that produced a number of outstanding parliamentarians, among whom Bevan was preeminent.

The temptations of extremism were always very great: Mineworkers and their families lived in conditions which Bertolt Brecht might have found it simplistic to portray, with hereditary landowners laying claim not only to the coal underground, but to the ramshackle cabins in which the toilers were crammed. Sometimes the mines would blow up or cave in, often causing the cottages to subside as well. Lung disease of the cruelest kind was endemic, and killed Bevan's father. In spite of this, he took an early decision that the writings of Karl Marx, however inspiring, were not to be his guide. Rejecting the syndicalism of some other factions, he opted to take his rhetorical skills to Westminster and took his seat as a member of parliament in 1929, at the age of 31.

The authors give an excellent potted history of the calamities which overtook the Labour party in the years between the wars. Attempting to preserve or perhaps to revive its pre-Great War glory, the British establishment stuck as long as it could to the gold standard, the Empire, and the paternalistic workplace. When the slump came and economies had to be made, they were naturally made in the living standards of the unorganized. Bevan saw this as, among other things, a callous destruction of family life. "In the small rooms and around the meager tables of the poor," he told the House, "hells of personal acrimony and wounded vanities arise." To oppose this humiliation was Bevan's raison d'être. (He had another narrow escape from extremism when he withdrew at the last moment from a flirtation with Sir Oswald Mosley's New party, which was rapidly turning from radical Keynesianism to fascism.)