From a Welsh miner to father of the NHS

On the centenary of Aneurin Bevan's birth, FRED WESTACOTT takes a retrospective look at the life of the man that he considers to be the architect of the National Health Service.

TODAY marks the centenary of the birth of Aneurin Bevan and some improbable characters are jumping on the commemoration bandwagon.

Weasel words are being uttered by those who have been hell-bent on destroying his greatest achievement, the National Health Service.

Today's political descendants of those right-wing Labour politicians who hounded him when he was fighting for socialist policies in the Labour Party now embrace his memory and praise his contribution to the party.

He was undoubtedly one of the most influential Labour politicians of this century, but it is the left which has most right to commemorate his life and work.

Bevan died on July 6 1960, three weeks before the death of Harry Pollitt, who, for over 30 years, had been general secretary and then president of the Communist Party of Great Britain

Both exercised a profound and lasting influence on the socialist movement in Britain

Both were products of working-class struggle coupled to Marxist understanding

But, whereas Pollitt was to devote his life to helping to build a Marxist party that was capable of giving organised leadership to working-class struggle, Bevan used his understanding to help him, as an individual, in a fight to transform the Labour Party from withi

Bevan had been a miner in South Wales and a local leader in the South Wales Miners Federation.

Like his contemporary Arthur Horner, he was powerfully influenced by the syndicalist ideas of the charismatic Noah Ablett, who was one of the authors of The Miners' Next Step, the document that was to mould the future development of mining trade unionism.

And, like Horner, he was soon to realise that fundamental change could only come about through political action.

Tredegar, where Nye lived, was also my home town ... the place where, as a teenager in the 1930s, I first became involved in the working-class struggle.

In those days it was an easy place to become a socialist, especially as we had what we claimed was one of the finest working-class political libraries in Britain.

As a young man, Nye was greatly influenced by the socialist classics. Jack London's Iron Heel was a great favourite and he likened the fascist oligarchs of the book with the South Wales coal owners against whom he waged a bitter struggle.

"In so far as it can be said that I had any political training at all," he later wrote, "it has been in Marxism." When he discovered Marxism, "everything fell into place. The dark places were lighted and the difficult ways made easy."

As a young man, the Communist Manifesto came as a revelation, "standing in a class by itself in socialist literature ... no indictment of the social order ever penned can rival it.

"The largeness of its conception, its profound philosophy and its sure grasp of history, its aphorism and its satire, all these make it a classic of literature, while the note of passionate revolt which pulses through it, no less than the critical appraisement of the forces of revolt, make it for all rebels an inspiration and a weapon."

In his fine biography of Bevan, which was written after his death, Michael Foot commented that "he would scarcely have altered this assessment in later years."

Bevan was elected MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929 and soon became a committed and astute parliamentarian.

When Ramsay MacDonald, Phillip Snowden and others left the Labour Party in 1931 and conspired to form a Tory-dominated National government, he did not view it in simplistic terms of personal betrayal, but more as a demonstration of the perversive, politically corrupting power of capitalism and the inability of the Labour Party to meet the challenge.

He had no illusions that the ideology of the right-wing leaders who remained was any different from that of the deserters.

Henceforth, he devoted himself to the task of transforming the party into an effective instrument to change society.

He was re-elected unopposed in the general election debacle of 1931 when only 52 Labour MPs were returned.

Although devoted to the Labour Party, Nye believed that unity of the socialist left was vital in the struggle against capitalism and its right-wing defenders in the labour movement.

In 1937, he participated in the United Front campaign, when the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist League combined forces "to revitalise the activity and transform the policy of the labour movement."

The Socialist League was a left-wing organisation within the Labour Party, set up by Sir Stafford Cripps and others.

Bevan and Cripps defied the ban forbidding Labour MPs speaking on the same platform as communists and were threatened with disciplinary action.

A year later, after seeing at first hand the heroic struggle of the Spanish people against fascism, Nye redoubled his contribution in the fight against the "non-intervention" policy of the government, a policy which aided Franco and his fascists.

Largely resulting from the struggle of the Spanish people and by the election in France of a Popular Front government, a movement for a Popular Front developed in Britain, aiming to embrace all concerned with defeating fascism, but with the left -- including communists -- as its core.

This time, the right wing didn't just make threats.

For refusing to withdraw from the Popular Front, first Cripps and then Bevan and four other Labour MPs were expelled from the Labour Party for seven months.

Nye used his biting invective to expose Chamberlain and the men of Munich, who were intent on rearming Germany in the hope that Hitler would attack the Soviet Union.

When their plans came unstuck, he wholeheartedly supported the war, seeing it as a continuation of the struggle against fascism.

As editor of Tribune, which he had helped to found, he supported the campaign for the opening of a Second Front in Europe.

In 1941, when Home Secretary Herbert Morrison banned the Daily Worker, Bevan joined Communist MP Willie Gallacher in denouncing the ban, even though he strongly disagreed with the then anti-war line of the paper.

"The Prime Minister," he said, "uses unexampled eloquence over the radio and talks about freedom and democracy. What does freedom mean if not that men may not be yanked off to prison without having a chance to defend themselves and that a newspaper will not be suppressed without having a chance to be heard in its own defence?"

He and six other Labour MPs defied the whips and voted against the ban.

Nye saw the Labour landslide victory in 1945 as the great opportunity to demonstrate that it was by parliamentary action that socialism would be achieved in Britain.

In a striking phrase, he said that a Labour government should "take over the commanding heights of the economy."

The crucial importance of the electoral struggle was the argument that he had used to me in 1934 when I was secretary of the Tredegar Labour League of Youth and had told him that I was considering joining the Communist Party.

He persuaded me -- but only for two more years.

It is as Minister of Health in the Attlee government and architect of the National Health Service that Bevan is, rightly, best remembered.

The biggest problem that he had was persuading the conservative British Medical Association to accept a state medical system and to give up some of the vested privileges of doctors.

In the end, some concessions had to be made which were to prove crucial later.

These included allowing some doctors to have their own fee-paying patients and to continue to pay doctors on a per capita basis.

But the basic principle remained -- medical treatment free to all regardless of income, at the time and the place of need.

The NHS was an enormous success and has proved to be the greatest monument to the 1945 Labour government.

However, it wasn't long before the principle of a free health service was to be sacrificed to the demands of the cold war.

In order to pay for increased armaments, Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell proposed charges on some health services, including prescriptions. Nye resigned.

To those who said that it was a small change, he replied: "Avalanches begin with a small stone." Prophetic words.

This was the start of the Bevanite movement, the most influential and highly active -- though loose -- organisation of leftwingers that has ever existed in the Labour Party and which had Tribune as its mouthpiece.

It was dealt a mortal blow when, in 1957, Bevan came out in support of Britain retaining nuclear weapons, an attitude that shocked his supporters, including his closest associate Michael Foot.

This was not the first time, though the most significant, when his professed Marxist principles had given way to political expediency.

Whatever criticisms can be made of Bevan -- and there are many -- his overall contribution to the struggle for socialism in Britain is outstanding and for this, socialists should honour him.

On a personal level, I am indebted to Nye for the inspiration and help that he gave me when I was starting out on the path of working-class struggle.

Saturday November 15 1997