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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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.