As widely publicised, this month sees the National Health Service, celebrate its 70th birthday. The man most closely associated with the foundation of the NHS was a Welshman, Aneurin Bevan.
Most of us will have at some time passed the statute of Aneurin Bevan at the west end of Queen Street and also seen the striking painting of the famous Welshman while visiting the clinics at the Heath Hospital. But what of the man who as Minister of Health in the post-war Attlee Government (1945-51) led the creation and establishment of the NHS?
Aneurin Bevan was born at 32 Charles Street, Tredegar, on 15th November 1897. It was one of a long row of four-roomed miners' cottages. He was the sixth of ten children born to Phoebe and David Bevan, of whom only eight survived infancy and only six to adulthood.
His mother Phoebe was not interested in politics but as a typical Welsh ‘mam’ dominated matters in the home and was a strict disciplinarian. His father David Bevan was a Tredegar miner and active trade-unionist. As with many miners, he suffered from the choking black dust disease pneumoconiosis. It was a disease that was to eventually kill him.
Bevan disliked school and was often in conflict with William Orchard, headmaster of Sirhowy School. On one occasion, Orchard asked one of his friends why he had not been to school the day before and when he replied that it was his brother's turn to wear the shoes, he mocked him. Bevan reacted by throwing an inkwell at his headmaster. At the age of eleven he worked long hours after school and weekends as a butcher's boy. On his thirteenth birthday, in November 1910, he went to work with his father in the Ty-Tryst colliery for 7 shillings (35p) a week. Bevan joined the Tredegar branch of the South Wales Miners’ Federation and soon became a union activist. By the time he was nineteen he was chairman of his Miners' Lodge and a powerful speaker. His employers considered him to be nothing less than a revolutionary. In 1917 he was called up under the Conscription Act, but refused to join the British Army claiming he would choose his own enemy and battlefield. He was however eventually rejected on health grounds, as he suffered from an eye condition.
In 1919 Bevan he won a scholarship to the Central Labour in London, where promising young trade unionists could learn about Labour Party history and Marxism. While at college he was given elocution lessons and overcame his long time stammer by giving speeches in public whenever possible. The early 1920s were difficult for Bevan with some collieries refusing to employ the young firebrand and others offering only temporary employment due to the poor state of the economy. When the General
Strike broke out in 1926 Bevan soon emerged as one of the leaders of the South Wales miners. However, following the defeat of the strike he seems to have decided that politics would offer a more fruitful opportunity to make a difference and after a short spell as a councillor he was elected as MP for Ebbw Vale. He represented the Labour Party in the constituency for the next 31 years. In 1934 he married Jennie Lee, a fellow socialist and MP for North Lanarkshire.
In the years leading to World War II, Bevan argued that Britain should ally herself with socialist countries against the march of fascism. This stance proved very unpopular and even led to him being expelled from the Labour Party for a short time. During the war he was appointed by Winston Churchill to the wartime coalition government, as Minister of Labour. When the war ended Bevan like most of his Labour Party colleagues saw a great opportunity to build a new society based on socialist principles. Bevan was particularly keen on the manifesto commitment to create a National Health Service.
As the Attlee Government went to work on its radical programme, Aneurin Bevan as Minister of Health, became the leading light in the establishment of the NHS. In 1946 Parliament passed the revolutionary National Insurance Act. It instituted a comprehensive state health service, providing for compulsory contributions for unemployment, sickness, maternity and widows' benefits and old age pensions from employers and employees, with the government funding the balance. People in Britain were provided with free diagnosis and treatment of illness, at home or in hospital, as well as dental and ophthalmic services. The birth of the NHS was marked by Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan’s visit to Park, now Trafford Hospital, in Manchester on 5 July 1948. That day Bevan met the NHS’s first patient, 13 year old Sylvia Diggory.
Following his spell as Health Minister, Bevan served for a short period as Minister of Labour but resigned in 1951when Hugh Gaitskell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that he intended to introduce measures that would force people to pay half the cost of dentures and spectacles and a one shilling prescription charge. For the next five years Bevan led the left-wing of the Labour Party, before returning to the opposition front bench as shadow foreign secretary and eventually deputy leader of the party in 1959. He was though already a very ill man and died of cancer on 6th July, 1960.