Aneurin Bevan
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The most loved and also the most hated politician of his time. An anti- establishment figure, he rebelled against many prevailing orthodoxies. He represented a rare synthesis of thoughtful socialism with practical politics, and was capable of a creativity which has led his friend Michael Foot to describe him as a 'frustrated poet.' A man of great vision, the inspirational broad sweep and ambition would win many converts to labour both in his native South Wales and in Britain generally. A supporter of workers' democracy at a time of large nationalised industries, Bevan never failed in his radicalism.

Rose through the trade union movement in South Wales as a largely self- educated miner. He attended the Central Labour College during the war, developing a high and sustained regard for the ideas of Karl Marx, which he never relinquished. As a former stutterer, hard work and practice was to transform him into an eloquent orator with more than a touch of genius.

Upon his arrival in the Commons in 1929, Bevan made his mark immediately by tearing into Lloyd George. He was to be both a left-wing rebel and a man of aesthetic London society throughout the 1930s: his belief that unity with the communists was required led to his expulsion in 1939. His role can be seen as being fairly 'oppositionist' until late 1944, when the forthcoming election made the need for party solidarity and practical progress pre-eminent.

1945-1951 Aneurin Bevan was given responsibility for both Health and Housing. Coming from the position of being a vocal critic of the wartime Coalition, people on both sides of the House wanted to see him fail. In particular, Winston Churchill and the Tory press aimed their sights at him from the offset, placing him under enormous pressure in both fields.

The feeling that to somehow discredit Bevan was to diminish the Government became prevalent with the Conservatives. More than anyone else, Bevan epitomised the labour movement grassroots within the House of Commons. More than anyone else, he was their hero. His relationship with Attlee, which before office had been fractitious, became productive. This was mainly due to the fair and open style of Attlee's administration.

After only eight months of being Minister for Health, a scheme for a National Health Service emerged. This was original and far more radical than that proposed during the war by Willink. Bevan demanded the full nationalisation of all hospitals in order to level standards - overcoming resistance from Morrison and Ede.

In the two-year battle with the BMA that followed, there were a few outbursts of bad temper from both sides; in 1947 Bevan described the Conservatives as 'lower than vermin' and some BMA representatives as 'politically poisoned people.' His operations were far more subtle and intricate than that would imply. Bevan was on good terms with the presidents of the Royal Colleges, using his vast reserve of charm and wit to overcome the real obstructions.

By July 1948, only 7% of the population were not enrolled in the NHS and this stands as a testament to a flexible, inclusive approach to developing socialist initiatives. Having said that, the NHS was by no means perfect at this time, being bulky in structure and underestimating both running costs and supply. It was the difficulty over finance which was to result in the fracas of 1951; a row that could have been avoided.

His other responsibility was housing, and this can also be seen as a real success. The main problems faced were a shortage of construction workers and the fact that the wartime Coalition had ordered temporary houses built of steel - by 1946 a precious commodity. Bevan's first step was to bypass private construction deals. A single national housebuilding programme would be tricky to implement, so he first tackled the confusion of the various local authorities and various government departments.

With these eventually co-ordinated, the government not only built 1 million homes, but built them to good specifications. Quality construction was used to outweigh the shortages of materials, ensuring popularity for even the temporary measures.

The politics of Nye Bevan have long been described as a British 'Third Way' between totalitarian state socialism and international capitalist exploitation. People using this phrase in the late 1990s had better beware: it contains the echo of a more powerful force and charisma, that current advocates are unlikely to match without a powerful commitment to socialism.


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