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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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.