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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Bevan

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.)

Labour's hatred for "the old gang" led it into fatal error when the true menace of fascism did disclose itself. Not unlike certain casuistic "peace" forces of our own day, it opposed the Nazis in theory and in principle but would not vote for the weapons or the policies that would enable armed resistance. While it may have been true that the Tories were not trustworthy opponents of the Axis in either theory or practice, the refusal of much of the Left to support rearmament was a historic error, and it opened a lifelong split between Bevan and his near-namesake Ernest Bevin, the belligerent spokesman of Labour's realist wing. (After 1945, it was Bevin as foreign secretary who signed the founding document of NATO, employing as his signet a ring given him by Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor. One forgets how much Atlanticism owes to the workers' movement.)

The great general in the class wars of the 1920s and 1930s had been Winston Churchill, who took personal responsibility for the crushing of the General Strike in 1926, had demonstrated some early sympathy for Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler, and maintained a "no concessions" line, often against his own party, when it came to the independence of India. This reactionary record meant that very few socialists trusted him as a leader against Nazism until the very last moment. (One who eventually did make this plunge was George Orwell, the literary editor and columnist for Aneurin Bevan's excellent politico-cultural weekly, Tribune. He admired Bevan: "Here at last is a politician who knows that literature exists and will even hold up work for five minutes to discuss a point of style," and was later to write that if Bevan could be prime minister and he a close adviser, there might be some progress. This was the closest he ever came to expressing an ambition for political power.)

Bevan probably never had a chance of becoming prime minister, but with Churchill elevated to that office by Labour votes, and Labour's leadership part of the wartime coalition, he did become the unofficial leader of the opposition. He was the only member of the House of whom Churchill was in the least bit afraid, and the only one who could match him in eloquence and oratory. During the awful period of steady British defeat in the early years of the war, Bevan was a continual scourge of the incompetence of the General Staff and a strong advocate of a "second front" to help the awesome resistance of the Soviet Union. At a time of widespread sycophancy, he was not afraid to criticize what he saw as the empty bombast of many of Churchill's speeches, or to ridicule him for putting on uniforms at every opportunity when he held no rank and was supposedly the head of a civilian government. However, since Bevan's criticism depended for its effect on the wretched performance of the Allies, it lost much of its force after the victories at El Alamein and Stalingrad, and the entry of the United States into the conflict.

The 1945 election, which pitched out Churchill and his party and installed the first true Labour majority administration, was the revenge for the decades of laissez-faire and appeasement. Historians continue to dispute what happened next: Some argue that British decline begins with this period of statism and welfarism. Two historic changes, however, did unarguably occur. India did become, even if partitioned and amputated, independent. And the National Health Service (NHS) made it possible for anybody in Britain to see a physician. The minister who oversaw the implementation of this program was Bevan. Again, his concept of socialism and solidarity was essentially moral. He cared less about the economics of provision than about the simple notion that people should not live in fear of becoming ill. Before the war, simple deficiency diseases like rickets had been endemic: The authorities in 1939 were appalled to find so many wheezing, stunted, toothless, short-sighted men presenting themselves at recruiting stations. As a Baby Boomer I remember being given the free milk and black currant juice, distributed through the schools, that eliminated such survivals of Victorian slum life. To this day, the British people cherish the principle of the NHS and not even Mrs. Thatcher was willing to privatize all of it.

Bevinism began to triumph over Bevanism, however, through the logic of the Cold War. The costly British effort in Korea meant the imposition of charges for some elements of health care, and in 1950, Bevan resigned from the government in protest at this infringement of the principle. The government itself lost office shortly afterwards, giving way to 13 years of Tory rule. The remaining decade of Bevan's life was spent in trying to rekindle the sort of collective socialist ideal that had animated the 1930s and the wartime years. In retrospect, this battle seems more conservative than radical. Defending Labour's commitment to state ownership of industry was, in a time of increasing postwar affluence, a nonstarter. (Nonetheless, the party's "revisionists" did not fully succeed in ditching this commitment until the rise of Tony Blair in the early 1990s.)

The book is marred by a startling elision. Bevan's finest hour, in that last decade of retreat and defeat, was beyond doubt the stand he took, in the fall of 1956, against the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Sir Anthony Eden's doomed, pseudo-Churchillian attempt to retake the Suez Canal. The latter was to be opposed in any case as an effort to resuscitate a moribund colonialism but, as Michael Foot's earlier biography made clear, Bevan was even further incensed by the selfish way that the Tories took the spotlight off Hungary and preoccupied the Eisenhower administration and the U.N. at a time when they should have been focused on the rescue of Budapest. The speeches that he made on that occasion are still remembered, and can be studied with pleasure by anyone who values principle and lucidity. It is unpardonable to skate over such an episode in a couple of bald sentences.

Bevan's rhetorical gift sometimes allowed him prodigies of convolution: He appalled many of his friends on the Left by supporting a British independent nuclear capability, and then justified it in a quasi-Gaullist way by saying that it would guarantee British autonomy as against . . . the United States. However, had he lived out a full span before cancer got him, there might have been a Left with a less surly and constipated attitude to the great issues of the Cold War, as well as a Left more surely grounded in humanism and solidarity. Blair is the first Labour leader to win three successive elections. Bevan would have disliked his piety and his obsessive spinmanship, but the better aspects of Blairism--his internationalism, from Sierra Leone to Iraq, and his belief in the civilizing power of a public sector--owe more to the old Welsh moralist than either might care to admit.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent collection of essays is Love, Poverty, and War.