Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (1897-1960) is widely regarded as one of the most influential left-wing politicians in British history. He is particularly noted for his tenure as Minister for Health in Clement Attlee’s government, in which he pioneered the creation of the British National Health Service. In addition, he is known for his wider contribution to the founding of the British welfare state.
Lesser-known, perhaps, is Bevan’s own personal background. Born into a working class family in Monmouthshire, Wales, Bevan worked in a coal mine as a teenager, and it was through a miner’s union that he first became interested in politics. A powerful speaker, debater and champion of the working class, Bevan was voted number one in the 100 Welsh Heroes poll, a response to find the public’s favourite Welsh people of all time.
So who was Aneurin Bevan?
He was a lonely, introverted child
Bevan was born in Tredeger, Monmouthshire, a working-class mining town where some 90% of the workforce relied upon the local mines for employment. One of ten children (though four died in infancy and one at eight years old), Bevan’s father was a coal miner and Baptist, while his mother a seamstress and follower of Methodism. Bevan, however, became an atheist.
Bevan attended the local school, where he was deeply shy because of a severe stammer that he developed as a child. Aged 14, he left school to start working in the mines, starting at 5:30am each day and returning home late in the evening. In 1925, Bevan’s father died of pneumoconiosis, a lung condition caused by long term inhalation of coal dust, but no compensation was paid.
He became a well-known speaker and campaigner
Bevan was a supporter of the Liberal Party as a child, but later converted to socialism and joined the Independent Labour Party. He became a well-known local orator, and was regarded with suspicion by his employers, the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company. The manager of the colliery found an excuse to have him dismissed; however, with the support of the Miners’ Federation, Bevan’s case was judged to be one of victimisation and the company was forced to re-employ him.
A member of the Tredegar branch of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, Bevan was the head of his local Miners’ Lodge at just 19 years of age. In 1926, he became a key leader of the South Wales miners during a General Strike, being largely responsible for the distribution of strike pay in Tredegar and for forming the Council of Action, an organisation that helped to raise money and provide food for the workers.
He first became an MP in 1929
In 1928, Bevan won a seat on Monmouthshire County Council in the Tredegar Central Division. As a result of this success, he was picked as the Labour Party candidate for Ebbw Vale, then easily held the seat in the 1929 General Election, receiving more than twice the number of votes as the Liberal candidate.
He criticised figures such as Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George for their attitude towards workers rights, and as a result of his strong stance enjoyed consistent support from his constituency, and was one of few Labour MPs to be unopposed in the 1931 General Election. In the coming decade, his support grew, particularly through the Great Depression.
In 1934, he married fellow MP Jennie Lee, who was described as ‘more left-wing than Nye’. Lee became a considerable influence upon Bevan’s career. Indeed, he was increasingly critical of his own party, and from 1940 to 1945 was the editor of the independent Socialist Tribune.
He oversaw a programme of mass house-building
After a Labour landslide victory in 1945, Clement Attlee appointed Bevan Minister of Health, with a remit that also covered housing, given the severe post-war shortage. Though described as an outstanding back-bench critic and an excellent debater, Bevan had long clashed with Attlee, even before being in his cabinet, because he thought he hadn’t held the Tory party to account properly throughout World War Two.
Despite his conflict with Attlee, Bevan was instrumental in developing a program that oversaw the building of 850,000 new homes between 1945 and 1950, which were good quality houses, owned by local councils and rented out to people at affordable prices.
He was responsible for developing the NHS
Bevan’s role as Minister for Health was hugely important given Labour’s pledge to create a welfare state that included sick pay, unemployment benefits, pensions and free healthcare for all, irrespective of wealth or background. The National Health Service was launched in 1948, and Bevan is quoted as saying, ‘No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of a lack of means’.
The NHS was funded by a slight increase in taxes, and government income tax was increased for the welfare state expenses. There was a particularly large increase in marginal tax rates for wealthy business owners.
A poll in 2013 conducted on behalf of British Future found that the NHS was more popular then than at its creation, and was more popular than the monarchy, BBC and British Armed Forces.
He resigned in 1951
In January 1951, Bevan became Minister for Labour but resigned in protest just three months later after Hugh Gaitskell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, proposed an introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles in order to save a potential £25 million to meet the financial demands of the Korean War.
The same year, Labour were defeated in the General Election. Nonetheless, for the next few years, Bevan was at the centre of controversy within the party – earning the nickname ‘Nye the Rhetorician’ – and ultimately gave his name to the party’s more left-leaning radical wing, which included campaigning for nuclear disarmament.
After his resignation, Bevan served as Shadow Foreign Secretary from 1955 to 1959.
He is consistently voted one of the greatest Britons of all time
Bevan died from stomach cancer in 1960 at the age of 62. There was an ‘outpouring of national mourning’ that followed his death, while the Daily Herald reported that some MPs were seen to be crying in Parliament. Former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan ended his Prime Minister’s Questions two days after Bevan’s death with a tribute to him, describing him as ‘a great personality and a great national figure’.
In 1987, a bronze statue of Bevan was erected in the city centre of Cardiff, while the Aneurin Bevan Memorial Stones were erected at the beginning of the Sirhowy Valley Walk with three smaller stones (representing three towns of his constituency Ebbw Vale, Rhymney and Tredegar) surrounding a larger stone, which represents Bevan.
In 2002, Bevan was voted the 45th greatest Briton of all time by a BBC public opinion poll.