THE MOST FEARED MAN IN BRITAIN
For 20 years Aneurin Bevan’s bitter brilliant words have lashed political bigwigs in Britain from Lloyd George to Winston Churchill; he hasn’t spared his own leaders in the Labor Party either. Avowed enemy of the rich, idolized by the labor rank and file, he’s fifth in line for the job of prime minister and many Britons are scared stiff he’ll get it
IN THE general election of 1929, which unleashed the full political power of Britain’s laboring class, the coal-miners of the Ebbw Vale division in Monmouthshire, on the borderline of Wales, sent one of their own, an ex-miner, to represent them in the House of Commons.
Among the new members—mostly earnest, dull, knobby-faced veterans of union hall politics who wandered uncomfortably about Whitehall—few drew more than a single glance from the old-line, high-toned Liberals and Conservatives. The member for Ebbw Vale was one of the exceptions.
He was young, 32, and of arresting appearance. Middle-sized and stocky, he looked like a born fighter. A shock of raven hair fell over the right side of his forehead; his mouth was full and erotic but, some members noticed, it curiously resembled Churchill’s mouth in determination. His deep-set eyes were steel-blue and hungry. At the opening of that year’s parliament many a pretty woman in the galleries asked who he was. His name: Aneurin Bevan.
For five days he fidgeted in the back benches, listening with impatience and what appeared to be contempt to debate on the Throne speech. On the sixth day the debate had turned to conditions in the coal-mining industry, which was in nebulous health both for owners and miners. Over the hushed House came the eloquent, challenging voice of Lloyd George, his white mane confidently proclaiming his prestige as an elder statesman. In the midst of this speech the unknown member for Ebbw Vale rose to challenge an observation. Lloyd George glanced at the young man and temporarily surrendered the floor.
What happened then was described the next day by the parliamentary correspondent of a Cardiff newspaper: “Young Bevan raked Lloyd George fore and aft with a torrent of vehement and voluble oratory. For a moment the elder statesman was taken aback. Then he too rose to his feet and the House of Commons witnessed the dramatic and fascinating spectacle of a direct and violent clash between two Welshmen. The younger man won. It was apparent a new force had appeared on the political scene.”
Patently shaken but still sentimentally drawn to a fighter such as he used to be, Lloyd George sat down and remarked to Herbert Samuel, “That young man will some day be the prime minister.” Bevan, now in his 54th year, his hair still thick but turned battleship grey, pudgier but not yet fat, his mouth still determined and his eyes still hungry, is not yet prime minister. A substantial percentage of Britain’s electorate hopes, prays, even vows that he will never become prime minister. Another bloc of Britons idolizes him.
In his own party’s hierarchy he is looked upon with apprehension, suspicion, often enmity. He is feared and disliked by the great triumvirate of Labor—Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison. He was once expelled from the party, reinstated by pressure from the miners and almost expelled again.
But the force that burst upon the parliamentary scene in 1929 is apparently irresistible. On Jan. 17 this year Attlee elevated him from the junior post of Minister of Health to the supremely important cabinet position of Minister of Labor and National Service. In an old ailing ulcerated Labor cabinet Bevan is at least fifth in line for the top post and bold and vigorous enough to take a few hurdles. A great many Britons are scared stiff that he will indeed fulfill Lloyd George’s prophecy.
They are scared because Bevan is an embittered Socialist, the unchallenged leader of the Left Wing of the Labor Party, the man who wants to change completely the face of Britain, as he has already partly changed it to his pattern by the national health program and his insistence that Attlee go through with the nationalization of iron and steel.
That he is anti-Communist with the same passionate vigor that he is anticapitalist is but scant relief to the upper and middle classes which he would virtually eliminate from British life and to the Right Wing Socialists like Attlee, Bevin and Morrison who prefer to weave their Socialism into the proud permanent fabric of British life. They neither hope for nor seek the full fruition of their theories in their lifetime. Given the power Aneurin Bevan would revolutionize British life in a single session of parliament—at least that is the interpretation one must put on his recorded opinions.
On the eve of his introduction in parliament of his pet national health scheme in July 1948 and in the face of violent opposition, he made a speech in Manchester. He spoke feelingly of the bitter experiences of his boyhood, how his older sister had had to work to keep him in decent clothes and how the only solution the government could oñier was to advise him to emigrate.
“‘That is why,” he cried, “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. As far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”
This speech made him at once a national and a notorious figure. It infuriated half the people of Britain. In the dead of night the door of his London home was painted: “Vermin villa—home of a loud-mouthed rat.” The Conservatives marked him as their deadliest enemy.
The word “vermin” ever since has rankled in their minds. Early this year a young aristocrat Hon. John FoxStrangways sullenly watched Bevan emerge from White’s Club, one of the oldest and most exclusive of London’s clubs, where the new Labor Minister had been supper guest of Air Chief Marshal Sir John Slessor. As Bevan reached the outer door Fox-Strangways came up quickly behind him and propelled him across the threshold by a boot in the posterior. This was one of the few times Bevan did not react. The ex-miner continued on his way.
Although Fox-Strangways paid for his lark by an instant request for his resignation from the club, he had done what had been a subconscious hankering in the minds of all Conservatives
from the moment Bevan had dubbed them “vermin.”
His enemies have called Bevan the most dangerous man in Britain and have conceded he’s the greatest political debater of his time. He’s credited with every vice and virtue in the political book. No one in Whitehall lacks an opinion on “Nye” Bevan. One hears he is a fiery revolutionary, an opportunist, a charmer and playboy, a man of the people, a barefaced showman, an extraordinarily' able administrator, a person of disgusting vanity, a British Abe Lincoln.
In short, he is spectacular. He believes in going after “the big men.” He made his early reputation by baiting Lloyd George and reinforced it by jumping on Churchill at the height of the latter’s wartime glory. The ease with which he uses wits and words to beat down the Tories has made him the darling of labor’s rank and file.
This story is told of his vanity: In
the late ’Thirties, when Churchill was battling against Chamberlain’s appeasement policy and Bevan was expelled from the Labor Party, the two men found themselves at the same dinner table. Churchill pushed overa facetious note which read: “Why don’t we join forces and form a two-man rebel party in the House?” On the other side of the paper Bevan replied: “What use would I have for a lieutenant who has turned on so many other of his party’s leaders?”
His subsequent clashes with Churchill have become legends.
In his opening speech of the 1950 election campaign at Liverpool, Bevan orated, “In those days when he (Churchill) was an outcast I was on quite friendly terms with him. He is a man for whom I have considerable respect and who in 1940 said things in a way that was unmatched and did great service to this country. That is why I deplore the miserable mob he has got among.”
To which Churchill replied in a subsequent speech: “There can be no greater insult to Lloyd George’s memory than to suggest that today Wales has a second Lloyd George.”
Later in the reassembled Commons Bevan made the famous speech which many interpreted as an unprincipled personal attack on Churchill: “And now to prick the bloated bladder of lies with the poniard of truth . . .” This so infuriated the Tories that their biggest oratorical guns singled him out for attack.
This same man who is the dedicated enemy of the rich, the hero of the miners, has an enormous appetite for good food, good wine, good conversation, good living. During the war he was a frequent visitor at the Savoy Hotel, one of the few havens in an austerity country where luxuries were available. His close friend was Larry Rue, correspondent of arch-conservative. Britain-hating Col. Robert R. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. Rue himself deeply believes in McCormick’s economic and political theories but this did not interfere with Bevan’s lively friendship for the Tribune man, usually over a well-laden table.
In 1949 on a holiday in Venice he became well known as a connoisseur of Italian foods and wines. One night, returning to his hotel in a gondola after dining well, he sang O Sole Mio in a rich voice and encored with Santa Lucia, an aria from Traviata, and finally his own beloved Cwm Rhondda. The gondoliers in the vicinity were encouraged to shout, “Bravo, Excellenda!”
Bevan is attractive, energetic, knowledgeable, devoted to the masses and aggressive. How did he come by these virtues which have intrigued and frightened this politically mature nation?
Aneurin Bevan became sensitive to poverty from his first years. He was the sixth of 13 children born to David Bevan, a miner in the Ty-trist pit in Tredegar, Monmouth. He was born to poverty on Nov. 15, 1897, but not, as might be imagined from his bitterness, to starvation. His mother was a tidy person with a penny and even now, her friends say, she might be Conservative if she were politically minded. Young Aneurin was reared neatly but poorly.
Five of his brothers and sisters died of childhood ailments and his father retired a sick man from the pits as soon as his first sons were old enough to become miners. Nye himself left school at the age of 13 and entered the
same Ty-trist pit. Even then there was something vibrantly aggressive about him. He worked beside his brother Billy, who was five years older, but always came home with the thicker pay packet. He sought out the deepest, most nauseous corners of the mine and worked harder than those around him. After work he spent his evenings in the library of the Workmen’s Institute in Tredegar, educating himself in law and labor.
At 16 he had become an object of admiration among the miners and they collected a penny fund to send him to the Central Labor College in London. When he returned to Tredegar they made him chairman of the local miners’ lodge, the largest in South Wales. A beardless boy, he was already their spokesman.
Bitterness and eloquence grew simultaneously in him. In 1916 when he was 19 years old two policemen arrived at his home on a midnight to arrest him on charges of not having reported to the Army under the Conscription Act. At that moment his sister May lay dying in the family’s four-room cottage. Young Bevan bluntly informed the policemen that if they woke his sister he would kill them.
Before the local magistrate he undertook his own defense. “Is it not a fact,” he demanded, “that the War Office would never call up a miner suffering from nystagmus?”
The magistrate agreed that nystagmus, an eye ailment common among pit workers, would excuse him from military service. Bevan then produced a doctor’s certificate that he suffered from nystagmus. He was promptly discharged.
“I am not and never have been a conscientious objector,” he declaimed before the court. “I will fight, but I will choose my own enemy, my own The miners broke into cheers. They elected him to the Tredegar Council in 1919 at the age of 22 and four years later he became leader of the Council. Then he went on to the Monmouthshire County Council and at the same time acted as an official of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. When these posts did not earn him enough to help out at home he added to his income by digging ditches for water pipelines in Tredegar.
In 1929 his career began in earnest. Ke was elected to the Commons for Ebbw Vale, polling 20,000 votes to a combined total of 13,000 for his liberal and Conservative opponents.
Sullen, brilliant, resistant, charming, he seldom allowed the spotlight to turn away from him. When he was not baiting the political heroes of the day 07 pouring scorn on the lesser fry he was pursuing real and fancied hurts.
He’s Tough But Not a Bore
In 1937 when Sir Dennis Herbert was acting Speaker during an all-night sitting of the House, Bevan shouted to him, “Leave the chair! Your conduct has been abominable.” He refused to withdraw the remark and was suspended. He never forgot the incident. Four years later during a debate on the Public Schools bill he asked the Speaker, Captain Fitzroy, whether a certain line of argument was in order. Captain Fitzroy remarked. “There’s not much sense to it.” Bevan immediately jumped up and demanded that the Speaker withdraw the remark on pain of being suspended. The manoeuvre didn’t succeed but it marked Bevan as a man who never forgets a hurt.
Such showmanly acrobatics are looked upon with tolerance and a certain amusement by old-line Labor Party leaders. “Nye may be obstreperous but he’s never a bore,” one of them remarked.
Yet in so volatile and many-sided a personality there are two constant facets which have accompanied his political growth and which genuinely frighten his own party no less than they frighten his Conservative enemies.
The first is that his fierce ambition has never been so opportunistic as to cause him to waver for a moment from his radical socialism, from his class consciousness, from his determination that he will attain his heart’s desire, the prime ministership, without the slightest compromise. Had he been more tractable his brilliance might have long since made him Attlee’s crown prince. But he fights his own leaders no less viciously than he fights the Tories.
In 1939 with Britain on the edge of war he flouted his party’s warnings and joined up with Sir Stafford Cripps’ ill-considered popular front campaign. This breach in Britain’s unity in its fateful hour was too much for Attlee. He expelled Bevan from the Labor Party. It took seven months of negotiation by the powerful Mineworkers’ Federation to convince Attlee to reinstate the firebrand. In 1944 he again opposed his party’s declared policy by campaigning against a new regulation dealing with strikes.
Even in the most minor matters he refuses to conform. At the 1948 Guildhall banquet—the most formal of all state occasions—he shocked his colleagues by appearing at the head table in a lounge suit. “I came here to do a job,” he offered in explanation, “not to waste money on tailoring. I shall remain true to tne class that sent me to Labor College.”
This brings us to the second constant
facet of his political growth—the faithfulness of his following among the ordinary Labor members of the House and among the people. No one knows the strength of this following; it has never been put to an absolute test. But it was numerous and articulate enough to impel Attlee to appoint him Minister of Health after the 1945 election; it was powerful enough to force Attlee’s hand on the nationalization of iron and steel when the best brains in the Labor Party counseled against the implementation of this wildly controversial measure at a time when Labor’s majority was a paperthin six in the Commons, when national unity was essential to the 1951 program for Britain’s rearmament.
Whether it was the power of this following that forced Attlee to appoint Bevan as Minister of Labor and National Service; whether it was a move by Attlee to bring labor unity to the rearmament effort; or whether it was an astute move to deflate Bevan’s popularity among the working masses—this is a lively question in British politics.
Certainly the new job provides a test of the faithfulness of Bevan’s following. Under the new rearmament scheme he must ask people to work harder and longer on a diet of 12 cents’ worth of fresh meat per week, to lower their already dull living standards and —worst of all—to accept direction of labor from the non-essential industries to the rearmament effort. Direction of labor has always been unpopular. Attlee has nimbly tossed it to Nye Bevan.
Will he make a good job of it? On his record as an administrator the answer must be an affirmative one. His pet national health scheme, for all its unwieldiness, has worked and is popular. The Conservatives do not dare threaten to repeal it. On housing he has not lived up to his promise of July 1946 when he said: “In five years there will be no housing problem for the British working classes.” There is still an acute housing problem but his bitterest opponents nevertheless credit him with a measure of success in a difficult undertaking.
Perhaps the nation’s greatest hope that he will be successful in his new job, which is the key to rearmament, lies in his violent dislike of Soviet Communism.
“If there is one thing I despise,” he declared a few mon hs ago, “it is the undermining of the working classes of the world today in the name of a distorted Communism. When the working class has elected a Communist government it is the last vote it is allowed. With that last vote it destroys its liberty.”
Warning For Churchill
Whither Nye Bevan? The Conservative press, which he has constantly attacked as “the most prostituted press in the world,” likes to think he is mellowing. It points to his comfortable, self-contained home in fashionable Chelsea, his car and chauffeur, and his growing appetite for good living.
But whenever the press indulges in such wishful thinking Nye Bevan comes up with a reminder that he will never change.
The other day in the House he was, as usual, attacking Churchill. The latter, who had just returned from a heavy lunch, shifted his position on the hard front bench.
“Don’t flinch now,” cried Bevan, spearing his finger at the elder statesman. “Wait for the lash!”
A great many Britons no longer laugh at such shenanigans. They are waiting grimly for Nye Bevan’s lash. *