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Andrew Price

T.V. Reviews

‘Nye Bevan’

(May 1982)

From Militant, No. 601, 14 May 1982, p. 6.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The life of Aneurin Bevan whose political battles have important lessons for the labour movement today was the subject of a recent BBC TV play by Paul Ferris.

Born in Tredegar, South Wales in 1897 Bevin’s early involvement with the labour movement was as a syndicalist fighting to stamp out company unionism and establish the South Wales Miners Federation. He became more involved in political struggles after the defeat of the 1926 General Strike.

During the 1930s as MP for Ebbw Vale Bevan brilliantly demonstrated how a socialist should use parliament as a platform to express the anger of the mass unemployed. In the 1945 Labour Government Bevan was responsible for introduction of the National Health Service. In the 1950s he was the centre of a witch-hunt organised by the right wing who wanted to expel him and his supporters from the Party.

Unfortunately having seen Gaitskellism defeated at rank and file level in the movement towards the end of his life Bevan sought a compromise with the right wing. He shattered the faith many of his supporters had in him when he changed his position on nuclear weapons in favour of Gaitskell’s.

This play could have been the subject of a serious analysis of any of these themes. It could have sought to explain to the generation to whom Bevan was only a name the battles he fought on their behalf.

The play did come of this. Indeed he dealt with the major political questions in a largely superficial manner, sometimes being more concerned about gossip about Bevan than in his political ideas.

One partial exception was the establishment of the National Health Service. Here the mass support this important reform received was well portrayed as was the selfish and reckless attitude of the British Medical Association.

Yet the play failed to even mention the tooth and nail opposition of the Tories to the NHS and their full support for the extra-parliamentary opposition of the BMA. The play did, however, bring out Bevan’s insistence that the Health Service should be free and that private practice should only continue on a temporary basis. The present devastated condition of the Health Service with the scandal of private medicine flourishing would horrify Bevan if he could see it today.

The stormy events of the 1950s in which the Gaitskellites, who enjoy a majority in the Parliamentary Party, attempted to purge the constituencies of Bevanite support was subjected to very poor treatment. At its best the play portrayed the dispute as a clash between the middle class and working class in the Party; at its worst to a personality clash between Gaitskell and Bevan.

The fact that Bevan was nearly expelled from the Party, that CLPs were closed down, that the right wing could only resort to organisational measures to defeat the political arguments of the Bevanites were all left out.

Some of those who supported the moves to expel Bevan in the 1950s now favour organisational measures against Militant supporters. Both Callaghan and Healey supported the expulsion of Bevan in the 1950s. That is why those who did not experience these battles should study actually what happened. Unfortunately Ferris’s play largely failed to explain any of the mighty events in Bevan’s life.

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