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Nye Bevan’s towering accomplishment was the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. The son of a Welsh coal miner, he displayed a steely determination and hatred of the class system from a young age, becoming one of the most important ministers in the postwar Labour government and the chief pioneer of nationalised hospitals and free medical care for all. Emma Dent reports.
For all the efforts of many politicians, few have their name indelibly linked with their achievements.
But Aneurin Bevan, or Nye as he was commonly known, will forever be associated with the National Health Service. The NHS was born during Labour leader Clement Attlee’s government just after the Second World War. However, it was health minister Bevan’s vision and determination that the NHS should be free, regardless of need or ability to pay, that shaped its ethos.
Born on 15 November 1897 in Tredegar, South Wales, Bevan was one of 10 children of coal miner David and wife Phoebe. That only six of the children survived to adulthood reflects the shocking statistics of the time. Life expectancy across England and Wales was at this time less than 50 years and infant mortality peaked in the 1890s at the astonishing rate of 150 deaths per 1,000 births.
A severe stammerer until he was an adult, Bevan did poorly at school and was made to repeat a year. At 13, he left education and followed his father and elder brother down the mines, at a time when two thirds of local men worked for the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company.
Outside of working hours he devoured books at the Tredegar Workmen’s Institute Library. It was this proactive attitude and strong determination that helped him form the NHS but also led to accusations of arrogance. It is beyond debate that he was a stubborn man.
His political career began early when he joined the local branch of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, becoming head of his local Miners’ Lodge (or branch) at just 19. Developing a reputation as a troublemaker, he was sacked, only for the company to be forced to re-employ him after a tribunal.
Having won a scholarship to the Central Labour College in London – a trade union higher education college – sponsored by the South Wales Miners’ Federation, he studied economics, politics and history and later became a union official.
Bevan took the role just before the general strike of 1926 and led South Wales miners on what would become a six-month campaign, including overseeing the distribution of strike pay and aid for the miners and their families.
After becoming a Monmouthshire County Council councillor he was chosen as the Labour Party candidate for Ebbw Vale, easily winning the seat in the 1929 general election. He quickly gained a reputation in Parliament for criticising those he felt opposed the working man, including some of his fellow Labour MPs and Conservative minister Winston Churchill, whose politics he was implacably against.
In 1934 Bevan married another notable Labour MP, Jennie Lee. He remained an MP throughout the Second World War, which he felt would bring about social change, including overthrowing the class system. He was also determined to bring down the Conservatives.
During the 1945 general election campaign, Bevan told an audience: ‘We want the complete political extinction of the Tory party, and 25 years of Labour government.’
The Labour government’s massive majority of 1945 must have been met by Bevan with unbridled joy. Yet his appointment to the cabinet by the new Prime Minister Clement Attlee was of only two ministers in the new cabinet who had not served in the wartime coalition.
As Minister of Health, forming a national health service that was solely funded by the government was at the top of his agenda.
In a second reading of the NHS Bill in April 1946, Bevan said: ‘I myself take very great pride and great pleasure in being able to introduce a bill of this comprehensiveness and value. I believe it will lift the shadow from millions of homes.
It will keep very many people alive who might otherwise be dead. It will relieve suffering. It will produce higher standards for the medical profession. It will be a great contribution towards the wellbeing of the common people of Great Britain.’
But there was considerable opposition to the bill from the start. Bevan and the British Medical Association (BMA) were soon locked in a battle over who would be managing staff, with many fearing ‘Soviet-style values’ imposed on the health service.
However, Bevan did enjoy good relationships with three of the main Royal College presidents. One of them persuaded him to make concessions, which included allowing doctors to continue doing private work, and throwing in bonuses. (In a line that must have come back to haunt him, 10 years later Bevan famously said he had ‘stuffed their mouths with gold’ to broker the deal.)
Ultimately, the BMA’s protests were in vain when 95% of the population signed up to the service as patients, which meant that if doctors did not sign up too, they would quickly have no patients to treat.
In its early days, the NHS included 2,688 hospitals in England and Wales, and employed 34,000 people with a first-year budget of £437m – the equivalent of £15bn today.
There was some concern that the demand on the new service would outstrip what it was capable of providing, with a rapid increase in prescriptions and double the amount of dental work that had been planned for. Even Bevan was taken aback by the rising costs: ‘I shudder to think of the ceaseless cascade which is pouring down
British throats at the present time, and they’re not even bringing the bottles back,’ he said. Less than a year after the 1950 general election, which saw Labour stay in office but with a hugely reduced majority, Attlee made Bevan Minister of Labour, perhaps in a move to sideline him.
Coupled with the government’s proposal to charge for dental and ophthalmic treatment, Bevan resigned. Bevan was never again in the position to introduce legislation, though after Labour’s 1951 general election defeat he did join the shadow cabinet in 1952, the same year he published his book, In Place of Fear.
In late 1959 Bevan was diagnosed with cancer. Though he planned to return to politics, his health deteriorated and he died on 6 July 1960. The Daily Herald reported that ‘MPs wept in the Commons’ when his death was announced.
Emma Dent is a freelance reporter