The Rt. Hon. Nick Thomas-Symonds is MP for Torfaen and author of Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan (I.B. Tauris, 2014).
A Punch cartoon of the House of Commons once showed an outsized Winston Churchill on the Government side with a giant Aneurin Bevan on the Opposition Benches.1 The illustration captured a fundamental truth: during the Second World War, it was the Member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale who provided the substantive opposition to the Prime Minister, who was dominant in Parliament as the head of the wartime coalition government. It also pointed up that here were two of the greatest orators in British politics, rivals with opposing ideologies who produced moments of intense hostility but also held an underlying, if sometimes grudging, respect for each other.
At first glance, the two men could not have been more different. Churchill was an aristocrat, born to a son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace; Bevan was the sixth of ten children born in the South Wales Valleys to a coal miner. Bevan was a passionate socialist; Churchill was a vehement anti-socialist. Yet both had an ability to inspire their followers with a vision of how they wanted society to be. Their oratory could lift the mood of their listeners, move people to tears, and make them laugh. They were both irascible and could be bloody-minded: men who often required a lot of forgiveness from their friends for impulsive actions. Yet, when they debated, it was a fine spectacle: each of them arguing with conviction, utterly confident in his own view.
They first clashed in July 1929, when Bevan made his first speech in Parliament. Ramsay MacDonald’s government had introduced a bill to provide a subsidy to local authorities to create jobs. The issue of unemployment was close to Bevan’s heart, and he was moved to speak by what he perceived as the cynical, co-ordinated behaviour of the Conservatives and Liberals against the minority Labour administration. Thus, it was two of the giants of twentieth-century politics, Churchill and David Lloyd George, that he challenged.
In his attack on Churchill, Bevan said that it was not the first time he had heard him speak. He said he had heard him previously, when Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, taking a hard line during the General Strike. “The first time he was in the role of bogeyman of the country, over the wireless,” Bevan pronounced, “and on the second occasion he was the entertainer of the House of Commons.” Churchill’s “chameleon-like character in politics is founded upon a temperamental disability,” Bevan concluded: “He fills all the roles with such exceeding facility that his lack of political stability is at once explained.” Bevan then characterised Churchill’s position as saying that the schemes are “negligible and will have no effect.” Churchill interrupted: “I said that the effect would be negligible.” Bevan brushed him aside: “The right hon. Gentleman said the schemes themselves are negligible as remedies for unemployment, which is about the same thing.”2 It was that combination of invective and mastery of detail that gave their debates such character.
Bevan confronting the former Chancellor, and such a well-known national figure, was symbolic in itself, and evidence of his courage in taking on tough, well-established opponents. It also proved to be a precursor to the parliamentary battles between the two men during the wartime years. Bevan’s most wounding criticism was made in the summer of 1942. As he put it that July, the Prime Minister “wins debate after debate and loses battle after battle.”3 Bevan did not dispute the brilliance of Churchill’s speeches in the summer of 1940, rallying the country after the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of troops from Dunkirk, and when the Nazi invasion barges waited to cross the English Channel and invade Britain. Bevan once wrote: “When the people of this country had been depressed by the brutal facts of Dunkirk, Churchill was persuading them to think about Queen Elizabeth and the defeat of the Armada. His contribution was to fling a Union Jack over five tanks and get people to behave as though they had become fifteen.”4 Yet Bevan did question why there was a succession of military defeats and blamed a failed approach to leadership. After the sinking of the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse by Japanese aircraft in December 1941, and the fall of Singapore in early 1942, Allied forces in North Africa had surrendered at Tobruk in June. Bevan posed the crucial question: “Why is the strategy wrong? I say, first, that it is because the Prime Minister, although possessing many other qualities, sometimes conceives of the war, it seems to me, in medieval terms, because he talks of it as if it were a tourney.”5 The allegation that Churchill treated the war as a jousting contest was an observation about the Prime Minister’s mindset, but it was the practical decisions he had taken that Churchill asked the House of Commons to consider. He closed the debate with a passionate speech: “Nearly all my work has been done in writing, and a complete record exists of all the directions I have given, the inquiries I have made and the telegrams I have drafted. I shall be perfectly content to be judged by them.”6 The motion of no confidence in the central direction of the war was easily defeated by 475 votes to 25.
Despite his robust defence in public, Churchill had his own reservations. In August, he changed commanders, replacing Neil Ritchie as Eighth Army commander by Bernard Montgomery and Claude Auchinleck as Middle East Commander-in-Chief by Sir Harold Alexander. Then, there was change, with the first major British victory of the war, at El Alamein in Egypt, secured on 11 November. Bells rang out across the country to mark the moment. After the defeat of the German army on the Eastern front in Stalingrad in January 1943, just two months later, the direction of the war changed decisively. Nonetheless, Bevan remained convinced that Churchill’s victory at the post-war General Election was not assured: he thought people would look to the future, and the society they wanted to build after the conflict, not Churchill’s conduct of it. In Why Not Trust the Tories?, published in 1944, Bevan reminded people of how they had been let down at the end of the First World War: “Lloyd George was idolised by the country as the architect of victory as Winston Churchill is to-day.”7 Yet unemployment had soared in the inter-war period, and the promise of a better society had not been fulfilled. Bevan was to be proved right when Labour won a landslide victory in 1945.
Churchill did not view Bevan’s wartime contribution as constructive. Citing Bevan as one of those challenging his coalition Government, Churchill wrote that he represented a “strong current of vague opinion, and even passion…” but that “the war Cabinet stood like a rock against which all the waves and winds might beat in vain.”8 Soon after Prime Minister Clement Attlee appointed Bevan as Minister of Health and Housing. Churchill, by now Leader of the Opposition, did not hold back in expressing his opinion: “he will be as great a curse to this country in time of peace, as he was a squalid nuisance in time of war.”9 Bevan actually proved an outstanding success in government as he created a new, universal healthcare system, with access based on medical need, not ability to pay. Yet it was in a speech in Manchester on 4 July 1948, the day before the new National Health Service came into being, that he made his most notorious speech. Bevan thought that poverty was a product of the failure of Conservative Governments to mobilise the resources of the country properly. He recalled his own bitter experience in the 1920s, after his father David, his family’s breadwinner, had died in his arms of pneumoconiosis in 1925. Bevan’s anger ran deep: “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. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation.”10 Bevan’s words caused widespread offence and led to Conservative activists forming “vermin clubs.” Churchill responded in kind with a speech in his constituency of Woodford on 10 July: “We speak of the Minister of Health, but ought we not rather say Minister of Disease, for is not morbid hatred a form of mental disease… and indeed a highly infectious form?” Churchill said that the “odium of the words used by Mr. Bevan will lie upon the Socialist Government as a whole.”11 It seemed that the relationship had descended into abuse.
Yet, when it came to Bevan’s resignation from the Attlee Government in April 1951, Churchill was much warmer towards his great rival. In response to American demands after the breakout of the Korean War, the Labour Chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell, was proposing to introduce a £4,700 million rearmament programme in his budget of 10 April 1951. This, Gaitskell argued, would necessitate savings elsewhere, including in allocations for the National Health Service, for which he proposed to introduce charges for false teeth and spectacles. Bevan was opposed to this breach of the principle of a free health service, but he was also against what he saw as a shift to confrontational militarism in American foreign policy. He criticised the increased defence spending on practical grounds too: he did not believe it could be spent in the three-year period for which it was allocated.
Bevan resigned from the government, as did fellow ministers Harold Wilson and John Freeman. In his resignation speech on 23 April, Bevan said: “There is no justification in the arithmetic, there is less justification in the economics.”12 Labour MPs gathered in groups in the Palace of Westminster in varying states of nervous tension. In this atmosphere, Churchill approached Bevan’s wife, Jennie Lee, who was having a cup of tea with her husband in the House of Commons Smoking Room. “I shee you are standing by your hushband,” he said. Lee responded in jest: “someone must put a bit of backbone into him.” Churchill responded: “Do not undereshtimate your husband.”13
Bevan was to be vindicated. In December 1951, back in office and surveying the practicality of the level of spending proposed on defence, Churchill gave Bevan “an honourable mention for having, it appears by accident, perhaps not from the best of motives, happened to be right.”14
Bevan, in turn, wrote of Churchill that it “was hard for even his political opponents—in the House of Commons at any rate—to dislike him.” He explained: “I say in the House of Commons because people who remember the vigour with which he set about organizing the armed forces to be able, if necessary, to smash the strikers in 1926, regarded him as a monster.” In Parliament itself, it was different: “in spite of the brutality with which he sometimes laid about him, it was impossible systematically to dislike him. His sulkiness and morose ill-temper were frequently almost forgivable, so childish were they, but nearly always his sulks would explode in a fit of rage, and after that he would forgive and forget with as much generosity as public life allows.”15
None of this is to say that the intensity in the rivalry lessened. In 1952, when the Commons debated the issue of formal diplomatic recognition for the Communist regime in China after the revolution of 1949, Churchill referred to Bevan: “But if you recognise anyone it does not mean that you like him. We all, for instance, recognise the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale.”16 When the new Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, called a General Election in 1955, Labour had a serious issue with disunity, the “Bevanites” having fought years-long factional war within the party. Bevan sought to make a virtue of the fact that Labour MPs had openly debated major issues whilst in Opposition, whilst Conservative MPs showed blind loyalty. It was probably the best Bevan could do in the circumstances, but the words he chose again caused deep controversy. This time he compared Conservatives to the Gaderene swine in the Gospel of Matthew who rushed into the sea and died. Churchill, speaking in Woodford on 16 May, castigated him as the “politician who causes more anxiety to every friend and ally of Britain all over the world. Undoubtedly his influence in the Socialist Party is great and growing. This is the man, this voluble careerist, who has called at least half his countrymen all sorts of names which have been helpful on our Party platform.”17 Bevan became the bogeyman of the campaign.
Bevan died on 6 July 1960. Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, gave this tribute from the Conservative benches to Bevan: “he was a genuine man. There was nothing fake or false about him. If he felt a thing deeply, he said so and in no uncertain terms.”18 In a similar vein, when Churchill died on 24 January 1965, Harold Wilson, by then Labour Prime Minister, said this: “A great Parliamentarian, but never a tame one—they misjudge him who could even begin to think of him as a party operator, or a manipulator, or a trimmer, or a party hack. He was a warrior, and party debate was war….”19 Authenticity matters in politics, and it was a characteristic that Churchill and Bevan shared.
1. Reproduced in Jennie Lee, My Life with Nye (London: Penguin, 1981), p. 303.
2. Hansard, House of Commons, 16 July 1929, vol. 230, cols. 339–41.
3. Hansard, House of Commons, 2 July 1942, vol. 381, col. 528.
4. Writing in the Observer, and reproduced in Jennie Lee, p. 304.
5. Hansard, House of Commons, 2 July 1942, vol. 381, col. 534.
6. Hansard, House of Commons, 2 July 1942, vol. 381, col. 607.
7. Aneurin Bevan, Why Not Trust the Tories? (London: Victor Gollancz, 1944), p. 2.
8. Winston Churchill, The Second World War, vol. VI, Triumph and Tragedy (London: Penguin Classics, 2005), p. 255.
9. Hansard, House of Commons, 12 June 1945, vol. 416, col. 2544.
10. Speech at Manchester, 4 July 1948, reported in The Times, 5 July 1948.
11. Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, vol. VII, 1943–1949 (London: Chelsea House, 1974), p. 7679.
12. Hansard, House of Commons, 23 April 1951, vol. 487, col. 43.
13. Jennie Lee, p. 305.
14. Hansard, House of Commons, 6 December 1951, vol. 494, col. 2602.
15. Jennie Lee, p. 302.
16. Hansard, House of Commons, 1 July 1952, vol. 503, col. 286.
17. Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, vol. VIII, 1950–1963 (London: Chelsea House, 1974), p. 8649.
18. Hansard, House of Commons, 7 July 1962, vol. 626, col. 702.
19. Hansard, House of Commons, 25 January 1965, vol. 705, cols. 669–70.
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