Bevan, Aneurin (1897–1960)

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BEVAN, ANEURIN (1897–1960)


British politician.

Aneurin Bevin is famous as the instigator of the free National Health Service (NHS), which was formed in July 1948 during the period of the first postwar government of Clement R. Attlee (1883–1967). Bevan was also the center of a loose grouping of left-wing Labour members of Parliament (MPs) known as the Bevanites.

Bevan was born in Tredegar, South Wales, on 15 November 1897 and educated at an elementary school. He became a miner but won a scholarship to the Central Labour College, London, in 1919. From 1921 onward, he was involved in trade union affairs. Yet Bevan was very much a political figure and became member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale in 1929, representing the constituency until his death in 1960.

During the 1930s, Bevan campaigned tirelessly for both the employed and unemployed members of the working class, opposed the Household Means Test (which was introduced in the early 1930s and reduced unemployment benefits as household income rose), and pressed his views forward through the left-wing journal Tribune, which was begun in 1937. In 1934, Bevan married Jennie Lee, an influential force in the Left in her own right. Together, and through Tribune, they rejected the political truce during World War II, and Bevan continued to attack Winston Churchill (1874–1965), the Tory Party, and the Fascists in the House of Commons, gaining a reputation for being a fine orator.

Bevan's finest hour arrived when Attlee appointed him minister of health and housing in 1945. In this role he attempted to create a nationalized health service, a commitment which went well beyond the 1945 Labour Manifesto. This led to resistance from the doctors and the British Medical Association, who feared that the doctors would become civil servants and be forced to work in "under-doctored" areas. They reacted to Bevan's plans by referring to him as a "squalid nuisance," "the Minister of Disease," and the "Tito from Tonypandy." Bevan's remark that his Conservative opponents were "lower than vermin" led many Conservatives to form themselves into "vermin clubs." Nevertheless, most doctors, dentists, and opticians had joined the NHS by the end of 1948 and it quickly transformed the health provision for the average British citizen. However, the NHS proved very expensive at a time when Britain faced serious financial difficulties, and Attlee and Labour Party leader Herbert Stanley Morrison (1888–1965) sought to curb expenditure and introduce prescription charges. Bevan resisted these until the 1950 general election, but then, on 17 January 1951, was moved to the post of minister of labor and national service. This coincided with the decision of the new chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, to impose health charges. Bevan responded byresigningon24April, along with Harold Wilson and John Freeman.

Bevan then became the leading figure of the Bevanite left-wing group of MPs in the Labour Party. Along with Barbara Castle, Anthony Crosland, and others, the Bevanites opposed the Parliamentary Labour Party by declaring themselves in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament and opposing the manufacture of the hydrogen bomb, which almost led to Bevan being expelled from the Labour Party in 1955. However, in December 1955 Gaitskell defeated him in a contest for the Labour leadership, and from 1956 Bevan was patriotic over the Suez Crisis and was treasurer of the party between 1956 and 1960. He effectively divested himself of the title "Leader of the Left" when he attacked British occupation of the canal zone in favor of unilateral disarmament at the 1957 Labour Party Conference, famously asking delegates not to send a future Labour foreign secretary "naked into the Conference chamber." He preferred to negotiate away nuclear weapons rather than abandon them. In 1959, Bevan became deputy leader of the Labour Party and, as a symbol of party unity, adorned Labour's postwar general election alongside Gaitskell and Castle. However, Labour was defeated and, shortly afterward in 1960, Bevan died of cancer.

Bevan's precise political leanings have been subject to some considerable controversy. Biographer Michael Foot has emphasized his traditional trade union and working-class Labour credentials, while John Campbell has referred to his Marxist roots. It is difficult to see Bevan as a Marxist, but what is undisputed is that he was one of the great parliamentary orators of the twentieth century, using his famous stutter to great effect. However, his lasting claim to fame is that he created the NHS.

See alsoAttlee, Clement; Public Health; United Kingdom.


Campbell, John. Aneurin Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism. London, 1987.

Foot, Michael. Aneurin Bevan: A Biography. 2 vols. London, 1962–1973.

Keith Laybourn