Nye: the Political Life of Aneurin Bevan, by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, book review

An insightful portrait that's free from Nyolatry

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The Independent Culture

The National Health Service has been called the nearest thing Britain has to a national religion, and Nye Bevan was its prophet.

Its coming was hard fought even in the Labour cabinet. Primary opposition to the nationalisation of 3,000 hospitals, at that time under local government control, came from Bevan's foe, the Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, who had risen as leader of the London County Council.

As well as his biographical subject, Thomas-Symonds gives an insight into the world of three giants of the post-war Labour movement, at one point describing a meeting between Nye Bevan, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, whose first jobs on leaving school had been miner, labourer and errand boy respectively. Ernest Bevin became Foreign Secretary, Morrison Home Secretary.

Nye Bevan did not scale such dizzy heights. He was Minister of Health, but few other politicians have such an enduring legacy, perhaps none at all who, like him, never held any of the great offices of state.

Thomas-Symonds distances himself both from the Nyolatry of early biographer Michael Foot and the castigation of right-wing successors whose chief objection to Bevan is that he was a socialist. Nye offers a genuine understanding of Bevan's political philosophy, of how his democratic socialism differed from the state-imposed model of the communists who were his sparring partners in his home town of Tredegar.

Bevan said he was "a projectile discharged from the Welsh valleys" but Thomas-Symonds' incisive analysis is that the formation of Bevan the politician started after he left Wales to study in London, and was notably crafted in his time as a county councillor. He emerged as a hybrid of intellectual and firebrand, more of a problem to his own leadership than to the Tories.

There was a lot of bluster and grandstanding about Bevan, worsened by the trenchant class bitterness that detracted from an appreciation of his charm and his cultured lifestyle. He seemed spellbound by his own oratory, unable to see his objectives could be better met by antagonising fewer people; calling the Tories "vermin" was not well judged. He also found it far from easy to get on with trade union leaders. Thomas-Symonds astutely notes he was very effective in power, it "brought out the best in him".

He moved easily into government and showed great skill in cajoling the conservative medical profession into supporting the NHS as finally formulated. Despite his many faults, as a politician Bevan demonstrably said what he believed in, and is well served by this closely argued political biography.