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National Health Service History

Geoffrey Rivett

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Aneurin Bevan (1897 - 1960)

Photograph showing Aneurin Bevan

Aneurin Bevan was one of the most important ministers of the post-war Labour government and the chief architect of the National Health Service.  He was born on 15 November 1897 in Tredegar in Wales. His father was a miner and the poor working class family in which Bevan grew up gave him first-hand experience of the problems of poverty and disease.

Bevan left school at 13 and began working in a local colliery. He became a trades union activist and won a scholarship to study in London. It was during this period that he became convinced by the ideas of socialism. During the 1926 General Strike Bevan emerged as one of the leaders of the South Wales miners. In 1929 Bevan was elected as the Labour MP for Ebbw Vale. In 1934 he married another Labour MP, Jennie Lee.

During World War Two, Bevan was one of the leaders of the left in the House of Commons. After the landslide Labour victory in the 1945 general election, Bevan was appointed Minister of Health.  He inherited complex plans assembled by the previous Conservative administration, which were the result of many compromises.  He took a fresh look at the possibilities and the many power groups and decided that instead of giving local authorities a lead role, all hospitals should be taken into public ownership as they would need so much public money.  In doing to he alienated members of his own cabinet, such as Herbert Morrison who was a strong supporter of the London County Council. Firmly on the left, he distrusted some in his own party as unlikely to build a socialist Jerusalem. He felt that where medical need existed, medical care should follow and that budgets should be of secondary importance.

In 1951 Bevan was moved to become minister of labour. Shortly afterwards he resigned from the government in protest at the public expenditure on the military and the  introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles. Bevan led the left wing of the Labour Party, known as the 'Bevanites', for the next five years. In 1955 he stood as one of the candidates for party leader but was defeated by Hugh Gaitskell. He agreed to serve as shadow foreign secretary under Gaitskell.

In 1959 Bevan was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party, although he was already suffering from terminal cancer. He died on 6 July 1960. A BMJ editorial described him as the most brilliant Minister of Health the country had ever had, much less doctrinaire in his approach than many of his Labour colleagues, and conceiving the NHS on more liberal lines than his Conservative predecessor. He towered over a long line of Ministers of Health and attracted in the medical profession profound admiration on one side and the sharpest antagonism on the other. The editorial proceeded to claim that the medical profession, rather than Bevan, was the principal architect of the NHS!

Much material on Bevan is to be found in Wikipedia and on the web more generally, including the BBC website, partly used above.


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