Adam Somerset tunes into BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives series for a biopic of Welsh Labour politician, Aneurin Bevan.
Aneurin Bevan entered my life a long time ago. My childhood home had a whole bookcase of political books. The authors were Strachey, Tawney, Titmuss, G D H Cole. The dominant colour was the distinctive imprint of the Left Book Club. The first volume of Michael Foot’s biography of his mentor-hero was different. It was weighty, came with a red dust jacket and was priced at 45 shillings, a price equivalent to £47.70 today. In 2018 the red on the spine has faded with the effect of light but the cover is a good red. Inside the cover in my mother’s handwriting the inscription reads “with much love” and a date “8/12/62”. December 8thwas my father’s 44thbirthday. In that year he had clocked up 30 years of Labour party membership.
I would have read Michael Foot sometime later in the decade. Before that my fumblings with history needed a bit of clearing up. I was well aware of Wales. It was a view on the horizon and my street had Thomases and Davieses, who treated me with great kindness. My parents could make a fair stab at pronouncing “Dollgellau”. When it came to “Uwchmynydd” it was a despairing “Ootch-ee-minnd”. From this linguistic perspective I took Aneurin Bevan to be the Welsh form for Ernest Bevin. My father eventually explained they were two different people. In fact they were bonded in loathing. The Cabinet – Cripps, Morrison, Dalton – was criss-crossed with mutual distaste of an intensity to probably outdo that of 2018.
The name of Bevin came up in my election of 2017. A canvasser on Aberystwyth’s Great Darkgate Street informed me that a Labour government would withdraw from NATO. I pointed out that it was contrary to party policy as enunciated by Nia Griffith. The reply was, “She’ll be got rid of, along with all the other traitors.” When I pointed out that Ernest Bevin, and Labour, were co-architects of the Atlantic alliance the canvasser’s reply was “Who’s he?” Off-message, off-message, who knows? She believed it to her heart.
Historical memory and party memory are selective. 1945-1951 is presented as a kind of golden age. Theatre writers adore it. Those who were not there should ask those who were. Public transport is a great lubicrator of conversation and I asked my companion at a bus stop this week how it had been for him. Caerphilly, he said, in the winter of 1947 had coal – not surprisingly – where regions in England did not. But no trains ran for six weeks. For most that winter was a hell that has had no equal since.
In health, the Labour government built no hospitals because the country was prostrate. The first big building programme was the work of a Conservative government. The Minister was Enoch Powell. That too is the point about history. There is virtue and there is vice, but they do not come in neatly wrapped packages. Bevan’s huge accomplishment was to make of one the vast patchwork of services and infrastructure that had been the work of an earlier generation. The trigger was Labour’s but the substructure for 1948 was largely from the age of Liberal ascendancy. The policy had come into being during the term of the National Government. Bevin, Minister of Labour, did not like working with Beveridge. The health minister had announced that a committee would be reviewing social insurance services. The inquiry was largely the brainchild of Arthur Greenwood, Minister without Portfolio, and Bevin proposed that Greenwood appoint Beveridge chair for the committee.
One of the most striking aspects of this month’s coverage is how rarely the subject of health has occurred. Inequality has changed but is still formidable. In the Usk Valley life expectancy is ten years greater than ten miles to the south. The NHS offers free pre-screening for bowel cancer. The take-up in Wales is less than half. People all around us are, in effect, making a preference for premature death.
All of which is prelude to the obvious, that listening to a programme on Bevan is not a neutral act. Radio was long ago forecast to die. Its durability has two factors, one of them is that it is the best of media for the untrammelled exercise of the voice. This BBC’s programme in its Great Lives series is excellent. Lord Kinnock is the advocate, John Campbell the historian and Matthew Parris the nimble chair.
Kinnock performs the role of exposition, done with economy and deftness. He says that compared with the generations who had preceded him he was born into the lap of luxury. He recalls at the age of eight being chosen to receive from Bevan a gift of money for the Sunday School. On another occasion the young Kinnock was a in pub visited by Bevan and Jennie Lee. In alarm at being reported to parents he and his friends scuttled for it. He is candid on the new world that was his. “Enjoy affluence, enjoy wall to wall carpeting,” was the lesson from his hero, “and still be a socialist.” He has no trouble with “the bon viveur, the man with the hinterland, the master of literature and philosophy, the lover of poetry and music” since “he strove to get all those advantages for the people he represented.”
Bevan drank wine. “People ask me what I want for my people. I tell them I want the best.” “How much of it do you want, Mr Bevan? All of it.” Kinnock: “He never made any pretence of it.” John Campbell is the biographer: “He was loved because he was a most warm, vivid, inspiring, dazzling, and authentic personality, an impulsive personality whom it was difficult not to respond to.”
Radio itself is voice. The extracts of Bevan’s voice itself are reminder that this was another world, one that is not our own. Kinnock says that Billy Bevan, his brother, was of the view that the problematic stammer was a result of a bullying teacher in school, and possibly a left-hander being forced to write right-handed. Bevan’s remedy was to recite great chunks of Shakespeare, the Bible, Keats, Byron on the hills outside Tredegar.
Parris’ deft chairing takes the conversation to the NHS, Jennie Lee, Paul Robeson, the rhetorical savagery, the Labour Party in its evolution. Kinnock says that the word of Nye is often evoked. Invariably it is “a lead-up to some kind of treachery.”
This is an excellent contribution to the events of the season. The BBC is a multi-hued creature- this programme is why we have broadcasting in the public realm.
Great Lives: Anuerin Bevan is available to listen to now on the BBC iPlayer.