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MANY thousands of marchers in London and Tredegar this weekend are celebrating the 70th birthday of Britain’s National Health Service.
They are also demonstrating their support for securing a world-class service in every community, free at the point of need, and for the wonderful but overworked and underpaid staff who make the NHS our most treasured institution.
Make no mistake, those thousands in England and Wales represent the views and feelings of many millions of their fellow citizens.
But let us also remember that the NHS embodies the socialist principles of the Labour cabinet minister who fought heart and soul to bring the dream to its fruition.
Aneurin Bevan was hewn from the coalmining valleys of south Wales. He raged against the callous rule of the coalowners and landlords who made their fortunes on the broken backs of the miners.
The Tredegar Iron and Coal Company was one such of those bands of exploiters who condemned the colliers, their families and communities to a lifetime of hard labour, grime and early funerals punctuated by periods of forced idleness, hunger and debt.
His anger did not abate when the young miners’ leader went to Westminster as the MP for Ebbw Vale.
There, his fiery but well-informed speeches exposed the cruelty of the Tory and renegade ex-Labour politicians who cared far more about preserving exploitation across the British empire than they did about the welfare of working-class people.
As someone who believed that the masses at the ballot box could triumph over a greedy and corrupt minority class, he understood the danger posed by fascism to democracy and the labour movement.
His support for a united front of socialists and communists precipitated his expulsion from the Labour Party.
As an anti-fascist and anti-imperialist, he railed against the “phoney war” and then mocked Winston Churchill’s enthusiasm for a “second front” that sent armoured cars onto the streets of Delhi instead of tanks into western Europe to assist the Soviet Red Army.
But, of course, his greatest achievement was to steer the National Health Service Bill through Parliament against the fiercest resistance not only of Tory MPs, the Lords, well-heeled hospital consultants and GPs determined to protect their independence.
It is largely forgotten now, but he also had to face down the opposition of Labour and Tory councils and countless trusts and charities who did not want their hospitals integrated into the new service.
Bevan’s rhetorical skills were formidable, yet they would never have been enough to win the day. He had to draw on all the skills learned as a union official, local councillor and member of local health and charity boards — and he had to make compromises.
However, he believed that in time pay beds and all the elements of private practice would disappear from the NHS. He thought that the logic of the public sector eventually manufacturing its own medical aids — including spectacles and drugs — would prove to be unstoppable.
He also thought that people would treasure the NHS enough to achieve optimum funding through progressive taxation.
Unfortunately, soon after the birth of the NHS, Bevan discovered that plenty of Labour MPs valued military expenditure and a supine alliance with the US more than they did any socialist principles.
Indeed, a sizeable minority of his Labour colleagues always feared and hated Bevan, his left-wing politics and the prospect of a socialist Britain. All the more reason, then, to raise a toast today to “the NHS and Aneurin Bevan!”
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