LONDON LETTER

The Pit Boy Who Never Forgets

Beverley Baxter July 1 1951
LONDON LETTER

The Pit Boy Who Never Forgets

Beverley Baxter July 1 1951

The Pit Boy Who Never Forgets

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter

IT HAS been said that in his youth a man sees himself as Hamlet but when he achieves the middle-age spread he decides to be Napoleon. Whatever truth there is in that diagnosis of masculine vanity there can be no doubt that Napoleon has greatly influenced many. The late Lord NorthclifFe, who altered the whole face of British journalism, not only had busts of Napoleon all over the place but ordered the single letter “N” to be engraved on his notepaper. Lord Beaverbrook also has a head of the Little Emperor in his library as well as a vast collection of literature dealing with Napoleon’s life and era.

Therefore it is understandable that Aneurin Bevan, who regards himself as Labor’s man of destiny, should fall to some extent under the baleful influence of the legend. Napoleon Bonaparte was born of comparatively humble parents in Corsica but Bevan can go one better on that score. He was born the son of a Welsh miner and entered the pits at thirteen.

Whatever hardship that beginning entailed, and it must have been very great, such an origin can be invaluable in political life. In fact in the present day one becomes a little weary of people bragging about their humble ancestry. Even Harold Macmillan, who was ADC to the Duke of Devonshire at Ottawa and married one of the duke’s daughters, has taken to brandishing his grandfather who was (according to Harold) a Scottish agricultural laborer.

That is why I like to visit the U.S.A. at frequent intervals, just to meet people who are not only proud of their ancient ancestry but are determined to talk about it.

A second asset which Bevan inherited was his nationality. In Wales there is not the same diversity of dialects which oppress the English. Eloquence is the birthright of nearly every Welshman and it is as natural for him to burst into song or oratory as it is for an Englishman to order a pint. There is no evidence that Bevan ever sang but he was a great talker at an age when most boys are content with mumbling.

Nor did our hero’s assets end there. There was a Welshman named Lloyd George boasting about the cobbler who had brought him up and making the flesh of rich men creep with his threat of what he would do when he reached power. At a very early age Aneurin decided that he would emulate the Welsh Wizard, as Lloyd George was already being called. The Napoleonic period would follow later on.

The immediate problem was how to get out of the mines, and no one could blame him for that. Where was the key to open the door to the outer world, the world of daylight instead of the eternal dark, the world of opportunity and varied human experience, and, more than everything else, the world of fame?

He decided the only way up to the light was on the magic of words. He talked to the miners, harangued them, dramatized their wrongs, gave expression to their muteness. Probably they liked him or perhaps they wanted to get rid of him it may have been both but they took up a subscription and sent him to a college which had been established by the Labor Party.

There he learned there were actually local councils where if you got elected you would be a councilor and in time become an alderman and make speeches in all directions. Instead of just talking to his mates he would be on a platform with a crowd listening to him and cheering him. What a vista spread before him ! If he talked well enough there might come a day when he would even be adopted as a parliamentary candidate and march on Westminster with the whole country— nay the whole world— as his audience.

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But in the meantime, as Mr. Micawber was always discovering, there was the annoying problem of how to live until the walls of Jericho fell. The problem was solved in a satisfactory manner. He did so well at the college that he not only won a seat on the Urban District Council but became so prominent in the councils of the powerful South Wales Miners’ Federation that he was eventually appointed a miners’ dispute agent at a wage which met his necessities.

The year he received this appointment was 1926, a year of challenge and of fate, the year of the general strike. Bevan, who by that time was 29, denounced the coal owners with passion and derision and told the miners they had nothing to lose but their chains.

The general strike failed for one reason onlythe rest of the nation united against it. But there was a terrible harvest of bitterness. More than any other part, the colliery towns and villages of South Wales were places of hopelessness and despair. There is no reason todoubtthat Aneurin’s heart was genuinely filled with hatred against a system of society which permitted men to live so wretchedly.

In 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash, he was returned to parliament for the mining district of Ebbw Vale. No longer was he an actor playing to provincial audiences but would now strut the same stage as Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain and Ramsay MacDonald.

There was a new life in the Labor Party. It is true they had bungled their first term of office in 1923-24 but now, as a result of the 1929 election, the hated Tories no longer had a clear majority. Once more the Socialists took office, although only by the connivance of the Liberals who held the balance of power.

But the world financial crash of 1931 proved too much for the feeble hands of Ramsay MacDonald. He split the socialist party by forming an alliance with the Tories and a small section of the Liberals and held an election. The frightened bewildered country looked to the new National Government and swept it back to Westminster with such a huge majority that only a tiny remnant of independent socialists survived. Thus the National Government, with Ramsay MacDonald as the titular prime minister but Stanley Baldwin in virtual control, began its life. The election in 1935 partially restored the numbers of the Socialists who had refused to follow Ramsay MacDonald into the Tory jaws.

With comparatively few on the socialist benches, Aneurin Bevan could speak almost whenever he wanted, and soon he was attracting attention. He had a curious stammer which paradoxically served to make his eloquence more effective. L. G. chuckled as he watched the young man. “That’s the way to do it,” he said to Aneurin.

Then there came a curious chapter in Aneurin’s story. Mayfair had discovered him and he was a popular guest in homes where butlers poured the champagne — Aneurin became very fond of champagneand the talk was amusing. I frequently met him at Lord Beaverbrook’s town house and he was an engaging and witty conversationalist. In fact he was discovering the joys of conversation where he could put away the bludgeon and use the sabre— he never quite mastered the rapier.

Sometimes, not always with sufficient excuse, he would become violent when the talk was of politics and would lay about him as if he were back in the pits. It was at one such dinner that Brendan Bracken shouted at him: “Shut up, you Bollinger Bolshevik!” That was a blow to the solar plexus. The Bollinger Bolshevik. Its very alliteration was enough to hang a man.

Bevan withdrew from Mayfair. Henceforth, if he drank champagne it would not be in homes of the rich and powerful. Some day he would make the Tories pay for that insult.

In 1934, at 37, he married Jennie Lee, the dark pretty daughter of a Yorkshire miner, a young woman with a deep attractive voice who had shown her strength of purpose by working her way through Edinburgh University — acquiring an M A. and a LL.B. She became a Labor MP in 1929, was defeated in 1931, but returned to West,minster in the post-war Labor sweep in 1945.

Joe Louis at Westminster

in the meantime Aneurin had formed a close friendship with Sir Stafford Gripps. They produced a weekly periodical, The Tribune, which Cripps financed and Bevan edited, and they called for a common Left-wing front of socialists and communists against the Tories. This so outraged the respectability of the socialists that they expelled Cripps from the party and warned Bevan that he would be similarly treated if he did not behave himself.

Then came the war, the fall of Chamberlain and the rise of Churchill to autocratic power. There was really no opposition to Churchill so Bevan decided to fill the void. When everyone was cheering the prime minister this youngish Welshman criticized him to his face. He even suggested that the British Army should be placed under the command of a Russian general.

Instead of ignoring him Churchill denounced him as a squalid nuisance and lost his temper on more than one occasion. This, you will agree, was a mistake on Churchill’s part. He should have ignored the Welshman or left him to the rest of us, but even a lion gets angry at a wasp. The result was that Bevan, a mere private member on the back benches, was raised on our execration to a new political importance. His mind is shrewd and he knew that after a war the British always stop cheering and demand a political change.

1945! Labor sweeps the country! The golden era of twenty-five years of Socialism is at hand. Bevan is made minister of health in charge of the new National Health Service and the building of houses. His fellow rebel, Sir Stafford, back in the fold, was also in the Cabinet as the powerful president of the board of trade.

But did the pomp of office soften Aneurin? Not at all. He had hardly assumed office when, speaking at the Labor Party Congress, he declared: “I cannot disguise my hatred of the Tories. They are lower than vermin.” That was a tactical mistake.

A Vermin Club was formed in London and, although I did not seek such distinction, I was elected an honorary member. Vermin badges were issued and proudly worn by young Tories. In fact the Tory party, which had grown soft with long office, began to punch back without too n>ce a regard for the Queensberry rules.

But Bevan could not be suppressed. He made another speech and denounced the British Press as the most prostituted in the world. This time Mr. Attlee sent for him and told him to shut up. It was a blow to Napoleon’s pride but he had no alternative but to swallow it.

Then came the 1950 election and the socialists just sei aped home. At the party inquest it was openly stated that Bevan’s “vermin” speech had lost them forty seats. That may have been true, although I think that Socialism itself had done most of the damage.

In the meantime Bevan had established a great parliamentary prestige. He was complete master of the House when he spoke, and although his building program was bad and his National Health Service was madly wasteful and extravagant he dealt with the hecklers like Joe Louis taking on all comers at the zenith of his career.

Then came a great advance. Bevan was made minister of labor. The boy from the pits had become the political spokesman and guardian of the workers from which he had sprung. A new mellowness came over him. Success even curbed his unruly tongue and Churchill openly congratulated him when he made a superb speech winding up the last of the steel debates. No one doubted that when the time came he would be the next Labor prime minister.

Do men control events or do events control men? That is a question which has long been pondered by students of politics. Hardly had Bevan taken on this new cloak of dignity when Hugh Gaitskell, as Cripps’ successor at the exchequer, brought in the famous budget that placed a charge upon the supply of spectacles and false teeth. To Bevan this was unbearable. It was the tweaking of the lion’s nose and he let out a roar that shook the Palace of Westminster like a gale. And then he resigned. Outraged vanity plus a Celtic shrewdness told him that it was the thing to do.

The story of Aneurin Bevan is not ended but his way to supreme power may be longer and harder than he thinks. However, my purpose was to give you a picture of the man himself and not to chart his future. Off stage (and Westminster is a theatre to him ) he is a lively, witty and cultured companion; he educated himself in philosophy, history and the arts, and I am one of those who believe profoundly in self-education. He is impulsive and generous, vain as a peacock and ambitious as Caesar, capable of loyalty to his colleagues but even more capable of loyalty to himself.

He rose to fame on words and it may be that he will be brought down by words. The English have a deep-rooted suspicion of the man with the gift of the gab, even though the Welsh acclaim him in song and poetry. And the English will decide.