Aneurin Bevan is famous as the Labour government minister who founded the National Health Service, which has been serving the nation since 1948. Bevan is also known as the firebrand MP for Ebbw Vale, on the left of his party, involved in many controversies, between his first election to the Westminster Parliament in 1929, and his death in 1960. Less well-known are the two books that Bevan published. In Place of Fear, from 1952, setting out the case for democratic Socialism, has been reprinted several times, without achieving the recognition accorded to many books written by former Cabinet ministers. Bevan’s earlier effort, Why Not Trust the Tories?, published in 1944, rapidly sold an amazing 80,000 copies, and then all but disappeared. The book has never – as far as I can tell – been reprinted, and receives only passing references in biographies of Bevan.
Why Not Trust the Tories? was published by Victor Gollancz, as part of a series providing critiques of the Conservative, and right wing, approach that had dominated British politics in recent years. The most famous of these books was Guilty Men, by “Cato”, published in 1940, attacking the appeasement of Fascism by the National Government. There was speculation that Bevan might be the author, but “Cato” was the pseudonym for a trio of journalists, including a young Michael Foot. Four years later, Bevan did enter the literary fray. The title page of Why Not Trust the Tories? announced the author as “Celticus”, but there was no need to speculate on the identity, as this was immediately followed by “(Aneurin Bevan, M.P.)”. As a hardback, with a dust jacket, and a text running to 89 pages, this was a real book – weightier than a pamphlet. It is now 75 years since the book was published, but Bevan’s work remains one of the most perceptive analyses of the negative outlook, and cynical actions, of the Conservative Party. Much of the tragedy of the past has been repeated as farce in more recent times, and Bevan’s message should be heeded today.
In 1944, victory for Britain, and her allies, in World War Two was in sight. In the first chapter, “1918: After the Armistice”, Bevan drew parallels with the position at the end of World War One. During both wars, Britain was governed by a coalition of the Liberal, Tory, and Labour parties. At the end of the first war, Labour decided to revert to independence, opposing the Tories. Within days of the conflict ending, the coalition called the infamous “Coupon” General Election, with David Lloyd George, a Liberal, as Prime Minister. The Tories – shunning the Liberals loyal to the preceding Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith – manoeuvered to ensure they emerged from the Election with more MPs than their partners, and thereby controlled the government moving forward. One of the instigators of the plan was Winston Churchill, a Liberal MP who was formerly a Tory, would later become a Tory again, and was Prime Minister at the time Bevan was writing.
In the course of the book, Bevan suggests that public opinion was shifting towards the left, and his faith was realised. Germany surrendered on May 8 1945, ending the war in Europe. Churchill wished the Coalition to continue until Japan was defeated, an event not expected to occur until the following year. Churchill was trying to repeat the trick of 1918, seeking a Tory-dominated coalition going forward, but Labour members of the government pressed for an early Election on party lines. During the Election campaign, Churchill concentrated on attacking the alleged intentions of the Labour Party, claiming that it would not be able to implement its programme without “some form of Gestapo”, a sickening reference to the Nazi secret police from the man who had recently allowed two million Indians to starve to death in the Bengal Famine. Churchill seemed to forget that his wartime government had included members of the Labour Party. Churchill also ignored his pre-war support of Fascism. Labour won 393 seats, and a majority of 146, as people voted for new hope. The discredited Conservative Party took only 198 seats in the 1945 Election – their smallest total between humiliating defeats by the Liberals in 1906, and Labour in 1997. The Labour Party formed its first majority government, with Clement Attlee as Prime Minister, and Bevan as Minister of Health. As for the Liberals, they experienced a long period in the wilderness, after dissolution of the coalition in 1945. They did not return to power until 2010, when a Conservative and Liberal coalition government, following that of 1918 to 1922, followed a policy of austerity, to condemn the hopes of a nation to the scrapheap.
In the second section of the book, “The Betrayal of the Miners”, Bevan looks back to 1919. With the British coal mining industry in a sorry state, due to mismanagement and profiteering by the owners, the miners argued for nationalisation and workers’ control. Lloyd George, on behalf of the coalition government, set up the Sankey Commission to investigate, and Bonar Law, leader of the Tories, pledged to implement the recommendations, accepting these could include nationalisation. When the commission supported nationalisation, however, the government rapidly reneged on its promise. The coal mines remained in the hands of private owners, who were allowed to increase the price of coal, and the industry remained in crisis. Bevan noted that production dropped, from 286,000,000 tons in 1913, to 196,000,000 tons in 1943. In office from 1945, Labour carried a major programme of reform, including public ownership of the coal mines, railways, electricity, gas, and steel, plus the Bank of England.
Later conflict between the Tories and the miners led to the downfall of Edward Heath’s government in 1974. Margaret Thatcher took power five years later, leading an ideological right wing government, which attacked the organised working class with deindustrialisation and privatisation. The actions of Thatcher, John Major, and David Cameron would have shocked even Bevan. The protracted miners’ strike of 1984-85 failed to reverse Thatcher’s decimation of the coal industry, which was privatised in 1994, and deep coal mining in Britain completely ceased in 2015. British steel was denationalised by the Conservatives in the 1950s, renationalised by Labour in 1967, and then privatised by the Conservatives in 1988. Since 2010, the steel industry in this country, largely owned by foreign companies, has experienced a lot of uncertainty, with the Conservatives refusing suggestions that renationalisation be used to protect manufacturing capacity.
At the start of chapter three, “Death by Words”, Bevan looks back to 1922, when the Tories ditched their coalition with the Liberals, which had delivered economic depression and mass unemployment. The Tories won a General Election as a single party, with Law offering the country a policy of “Tranquility”, which proved to be another word for cuts to services, and more unemployment. The General Election of 1922 has been echoed in 2015, as the Conservatives gained marginal constituencies from their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and also Labour – centrally funded by the Tory Electoral Fraud – and won a majority in the Commons, with only 37 per cent of the votes cast.
Bevan hops from 1922 to planning for the future, during World War Two. Tories pretended to be enthused about popular reforms, but found ways to delay their implementation, with official enquiries and reports being followed by detailed consideration from the government. Bevan provides an excellent analysis of events surrounding the Beveridge Report, published in December 1942, which envisaged a comprehensive scheme of social security. The plan was originally due to come into effect in July 1944. The Conservative Party was not, however, enthusiastic about the scheme so the government delayed its implementation. When the Beveridge Report was debated in the House of Commons, during February 1943, the Tories carried a motion welcoming it as an idea for “post-war reconstruction”, defeating a backbench Labour amendment that called for “early implementation of the plan”. Bevan, one of 119 MPs who voted for the amendment, writes that here was “The Tory variant of ‘Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today’”. Bevan borrowed this curious idea from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There. The White Queen offered Alice work as a maid, for “Twopence a week, and jam every other day”, going on to say “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today”. Bevan quotes the speech by “Mr Willink, who is now Minister of Health”. Henry Willink said “I am for improving the Beveridge Report”, although “there are many features of the report which I do not wish to see implemented”. Willink then voted with his fellow Tories for delay – he will appear later in this piece. During the following months, Beveridge and opposition MPs regularly pressed the government for a commitment to progress, but were met by delaying statements from Churchill and others. Bevan points out that massive public enthusiasm for the scheme was replaced by disillusion, as the Tories “contrive to drown the wistful hopes of the people for social security in a torrent of words, specious promises and endless delays”.
“Jobs for Some” is the heading of Bevan’s next exploration. He begins with Churchill addressing the nation in a radio broadcast, during March 1943, about post-war prospects. Bevan hears Churchill planning a repeat of 1918, with his suggestion that defeat of Hitler be followed by a Four Year Plan of reconstruction, led by “a National Government comprising the best men of all parties who are willing to serve”. In perhaps the only quote from the book to achieve longevity, Bevan comments “Political renegades always start their career of treachery as the ‘best men of all parties’ and end up in the Tory knackery”. A White Paper on Employment Policy arrived in May 1944, attempted at improving morale, shortly before the troops left for Normandy on D-Day. Bevan satirises the White Paper at length, particularly the idea that “thermostatic control of employment” could see troops – hoping to settle in family homes, and stable employment, upon their return after the war – being converted into mobile labourers, hopping between locations and trades, evening out fluctuations in the temperature of failing capitalism. Bevan ends the chapter with a quote from a speech he made, when the White Paper was debated in Parliament. He said of the plan, “It runs away from every major social problem. It takes refuge in tricks, strategies, and devices because it has not the honesty to face up to the implications of the social problems involved”. Bevan was correct in his scepticism. Post-war Conservatism has brought continued mismanagement of the economy, leading to several spells of mass unemployment. The number of people unemployed rose above three million under both Thatcher, in 1982, and Major, in 1993. Cameron was little improvement in this respect, as unemployment increased to almost 2,700,000 in 2011.
“Will You Get That House?” is the question asked by the penultimate chapter. Bevan remarks that while the British forces were abroad fighting the Nazis, at home the Tories were focusing on their own priority. He points out that “the private ownership of land and the right to do what they like with it have always been the holy of the holies for the Tories”. From this stem issues over the provision, and affordability, of housing. Millions of new homes would have to be built to rectify a pre-war shortfall, that had been exacerbated by the destruction of bombing. Following a familiar pattern, the Tories set up a Royal Commission, and two Committees of Enquiry, rejected the suggestions they did not like, and were still procrastinating over action as Bevan completed work on the book. Bevan could not see Churchill, a Prime Minister who had the clearest power to act, delivering on his frequent promises of future “sunny uplands”.
In the current age, Conservative Brexiteers, of both deal and no deal persuasions, dream of “sunny uplands” – presumably overlooking headless (or chlorinated) chickens running around Brexitised wheat fields. Cameron announced the plan for a Referendum on membership of the European Union in 2013, and it was held three years later. The purest of Brexiteers said they would end payments to the EU, take back control of our laws from the European Court, leave the EU single market and customs union, not pay a divorce bill to the EU, negotiate free trade agreements with the EU plus the world’s other leading economies, and achieve all this within two years of a vote to leave in the 2016 Referendum. It is now more than three years since the British people voted to leave the EU, but the Tories have failed to achieve any of their Brexit milestones.
Returning to the past, Britain did get a massive programme of house building after World War Two, but this was not initiated by the Tories. Bevan mentions that, in 1944, Henry Willink pledged a post-war house building programme, which the former thought was far from sufficient. In practice, the man directing the programme was none other than Bevan himself, whose role as Minister of Health also included responsibility for housing. During Bevan’s spell in office, a million council houses were built, to a higher quality standard than was previously in place. Council houses remained a central part of affordable housing in Britain until the decline began during the Thatcher era. Thatcherism’s ideological sales of council houses fueled a growth in house prices and rents plus homelessness, the sad legacy of which afflicts potential owners and tenants today, while a large proportion of current Conservative MPs are landlords.
Perhaps the most relevant part of the book for the present day is the final chapter, “The Mechanism of the Tory Mind”. Bevan begins by stating that he does not regard Tories, as men and women, to be “worse than other people”. He thinks that Tories have good private morals “whereas their public morals are execrable”, with habitual telling of lies about their political motives. Bevan points out that “the traditional Tory does not look upon himself as the people’s representative, because the Tory doctrine pre-dates the rise of modern democracy”. The Tories had fought against the development of democracy, and had sided with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco in their attacks on democratic government. Bevan also draws attention to the way in which the Tories had blocked a role for Parliament in the organisation of the British economy, in order to protect their own position as the representatives of the propertied class. He states “By refusing the state effective intervention in the economic activities of society, the Tory is a potential Fascist element in the community. By denying Parliament a vigorous economic life he condemns it to death”. Necessity had led to an economic role for the state during the war, but Bevan pointed to signs that the Tories would seek to retain power with the help of “a freedom campaign”, backed by “the Tory millionaire press”, with propaganda against state regulation. This would enable a Tory to “be free once more to hunt in the jungle of economic competition”. Bevan warned that the left must guard against “appearing to be the advocates of regimentation as opposed to freedom”. Bevan highlighted the perennial problem for the Tories: “It is how to induce the many to vote the few back into power at each election. Or, to put it another way, how to persuade the poor to allow the rich to continue ruling”. In our own day, Jeremy Corbyn has made the phrase “For the many not the few” into the Labour Party’s mantra, and 2017 Manifesto title.
The Tory propaganda failed in 1945, and the incoming Labour government delivered the welfare state. The defining achievement of Labour was the National Health Service, with Bevan being the architect. The Conservatives responded with vehement opposition, voted against establishment of the NHS in Parliament, and have continued to undermine its principles. With Bevan standing firm, the NHS opened on July 5 1948. On the previous day, Bevan addressed a Labour Party rally in Manchester. Having given the Tories the benefit of the doubt about their morals in 1944, Bevan now saw things very differently, doubtless antagonised by the Tory attempt to block foundation of the NHS. In the speech, he contrasted the promise of the welfare state with the poverty suffered by working class people, including himself, due to the past policies of the Conservatives. “That is why,” Bevan said, “no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned, they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first class people to semi-starvation”. The Conservative press reacted with furious condemnation of Bevan’s bold political banter. Conservative Party members set up a Vermin Club as a protest against Bevan, with a prominent member being Margaret Thatcher, an aspiring politician destined to lead a Conservative attack on the NHS decades later, with the introduction of an internal market.
A major reorganization of the NHS, introduced by the Con-Dem coalition, took effect in 2013, increasing the rate at which privatization, and fragmentation, undermined a vital public service. In 2017, Jeremy Hunt, as Secretary of State for Health, told the Conservative Party Conference (ironically meeting in Manchester): “Nye Bevan deserves credit for founding the NHS in 1948, but that wasn’t him or indeed any Labour minister. That was the Conservative health minister in 1944, Sir Henry Willink, whose white paper announced the setting up of the NHS”. Many people smelt a rat, or at least a large piece of fake news. Hunt’s ludicrous claim that a Conservative had set up the NHS somehow failed to deal with the fact that the Conservatives, including Willink, had voted against legislation in 1946 that set up a comprehensive NHS – which went beyond the coalition plan of 1944. Of course Hunt is no longer in government, having departed upon his recent defeat against Boris Johnson in a Conservative Party leadership election. When detailing the “sunny uplands” of Brexit earlier, I did not mention perhaps the most popular of pledges, this being the transfer of the UK’s gross contribution of £350,000,000 per week to the EU, which would in the near future be used to fund the NHS. The pledge was made by the Vote Leave campaign, led by Johnson, Michael Gove, and other Tory Brexiteers – a cabal who now control the government. In 2016, Vote Leave did not look at how the funding of agriculture, regional development, and other items, met by the return, from the EU, of about half the gross contribution would be replaced. In 2019, during his first few weeks as Prime Minister, Johnson has made plenty of announcements, one of which offered more money to the NHS – which turned out to be a recycling of existing funding – but there has not been any sign of the Tory “magic money tree” sprouting £350,000,000 per week for the NHS. As Bevan demonstrated in 1944, we always need to be wary of Tory promises – the 2019 Tories are trying the repeat a cycle of deception that Bevan traced back to 1918. Why not trust the Tories? There are so many reasons!