Aneurin Bevan

Welsh politician (1897-1960)

Aneurin Bevan (15 November 18976 July 1960) was a Welsh Labour Party politician who is best known for overseeing the creation of the National Health Service in the Labour government after World War II. Bevan, a left-winger, was intermittently in trouble with the Labour leadership; in the 1950s he astonished his supporters by opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament. He overcame a speech impediment and was regarded as one of the most eloquent public speakers of his day.

Not even the apparently enlightened principle of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ can excuse indifference to individual suffering. There is no test for progress other than its impact on the individual.



  • The Labour Party should oppose the Government arms plan root and branch.
    • Tribune, 19 February 1937.
  • If the immediate international situation is used as an excuse to get us to drop our opposition to the rearmament programme of the Government, the next phase must be that we must desist from any industrial or political action that may disturb national unity in the face of Fascist aggression. Along that road is endless retreat, and at the end of it a voluntary totalitarian State with ourselves erecting the barbed wire around. You cannot collaborate, you cannot accept the logic of collaboration on a first class issue like rearmament, and at the same time evade the implications of collaboration all along the line when the occasion demands it.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference of 1937, quoted in John Campbell, Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism (1987), p. 77
  • Economics, said Mr Stanley, is 50% psychology … What we need, apparently, is not statesman but hypnotists, not scientists, but witchdoctors, not confidence born of scientific prediction of the future, but confidence created by a political Confidence Trick. There is nothing surprising in this. It is the kind of mystic Mumbo-Jumbo to which capitalism is driven when austere reason pronounces sentence of death upon it. It is the primitive recoil from reality and the burdens of reality which lies at the root of Fascist psychology.
    • Tribune (5 November 1937)
  • The fear of Hitler is to be used to frighten the workers of Britain into silence. In short Hitler is to rule Britain by proxy. If we accept the contention that the common enemy is Hitler and not the British capitalist class, then certainly Churchill is right. But it means abandonment of the class struggle and the subservience of the British workers to their own employers.
    • Tribune (19 November 1937), quoted in John Campbell, Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism (1987), p. 77
  • What argument have they to persuade the young men to fight except merely in another squalid attempt to defend themselves against a redistribution of the international swag?
    • Hansard, House of Commons 5th series, vol. 346, col. 2139.
    • Speech in the House of Commons on 4 May 1939 opposing conscription.


  • You have got to purge the army at the top. It will have to be a drastic purge, because the spirit of the British Army has to be regained. We have in this country five or six generals, members of other nations, Czechs, Poles, and French, all of them trained in the use of German weapons and German technique...I know it is hurtful to our pride, but would it not be possible to put some of these men temporarily in charge of our men in the field?
    • Hansard, House of Commons 5th series, vol. 381, col. 540.
    • Speech in the House of Commons, 2 July 1942.
  • I have spent now more than a quarter of a century of my life in public affairs, and as I grow older I become more and more pessimistic. I started-if the House will forgive me this personal note - my career in public affairs in a small colliery town in South Wales. When I was quite a young boy my father took me down the street and showed me one or two portly and complacent looking gentlemen standing at the shop doors, and, pointing to one, he said, "Very important man. That's Councillor Jackson. He's a very important man in this town." I said, "What's the Council?" "Oh, that's the place that governs the affairs of this town," said my father. "Very important place indeed, and they are very powerful men." When I got older I said to myself, "The place to get to is the council. That's where the power is." So I worked very hard, and, in association with my fellows, when I was about 20 years of age, I got on to the council. I discovered when I got there that the power had been there, but it had just gone. So I made some inquiries, being an earnest student of social affairs, and I learned that the power had slipped down to the county council. That was as where it was, and where it had gone to. So I worked very hard again, and I got there-and it had gone from there too. Then I found out that it had come up here. So I followed it, and sure enough I found that it had been here, but I just saw its coat tails round the corner.
    • Hansard, House of Commons 5th series, vol 395, columns 1616-1617.
    • Speech in the House of Commons, 15 December 1943.
  • I will go so far as to say that if the implications of the [Employment] White Paper are sound, there is no longer any justification for this party existing at all. We think that we represent a fundamental body of doctrine which is conducive to the welfare of the State, and which subsequently the State will have to adopt if it is to be saved. Therefore, I do not see for the life of me—and I am putting a serious proposition to the House—how a Coalition Government can pretend to be able to examine a situation of this sort and put an intelligible series of propositions to the House.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (23 June 1944)
  • Apparently some fire-eaters to-day have been saying "Never again must we allow ourselves to get into the same condition of military unpreparedness, so we are going to build up a vast war machine in this country in order to surround defeated Germany with a sea of peaceful tranquillity..." It looks as though the consequences of defeat will be more desirable than those of victory.
    • Hansard, House of Commons 5th series, vol. 402, col. 1559.
    • Speech in the House of Commons on 2 August 1944.
  • This island is made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organizing genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time.
    • Daily Herald, 25 May 1945
    • Speech at Blackpool, 24 May 1945.
  • That is why 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. Now the Tories are pouring out money in propaganda of all sorts and are hoping by this organised sustained mass suggestion to eradicate from our minds all memory of what we went through. But, I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying now. Do not listen to the seductions of Lord Woolton. He is a very good salesman. If you are selling shoddy stuff you have to be a good salesman. But I warn you they have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse than they were.
    • Speech on 3 July 1948 at the Bellevue Hotel, on eve of the entry into force of the National Health Service.
  • The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.
    • Labour Party Conference, Blackpool 1949
  • It has been suggested, I think by the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) that the most constructive suggestion he could make was to urge an early General Election and a return of a Tory Government in Britain. Why on earth should he want to prophesy what might result from a Tory Government when history has the record for him? Why read the crystal when he can read the book?
    • Hansard, House of Commons, 5th series, vol. 468, col. 319.
    • Speech in the House of Commons, 29 September 1949.


  • There is only one hope for mankind, and that hope still remains in this little island. It is from here that we tell the world where to go and how to go there, but we must not follow behind the anarchy of American competitive capitalism which is unable to restrain itself at all, as is seen in the stockpiling that is now going on, and which denies to the economy of Great Britain even the means of carrying on our civil production.
  • There is only one hope for mankind — and that is democratic Socialism.
  • Freedom is the by-product of economic surplus.
    • In Place of Fear (William Heinemann Ltd, 1952), p. 39
  • Man must first live before he can live abundantly.
    • In Place of Fear (William Heinemann Ltd, 1952), p. 40
  • The British constitution, with its adult suffrage, exposes all rights and privileges, properties and powers, to the popular will. The only checks are those that arise from a sense of justice and social propriety.
    • In Place of Fear (William Heinemann Ltd, 1952), p. 100
  • We could manage to survive without money changers and stockbrokers. We should find it harder to do without miners, steel workers and those who cultivate the land.
    • In Place of Fear (William Heinemann Ltd, 1952), p. 157
  • The spectacle therefore afforded us by the United States is one of technical brilliance and social blindness.
    • In Place of Fear (William Heinemann Ltd, 1952), p. 162
  • Not even the apparently enlightened principle of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ can excuse indifference to individual suffering. There is no test for progress other than its impact on the individual.
    • In Place of Fear (William Heinemann Ltd, 1952), pp. 167-8
  • Soon, if we are not prudent, millions of people will be watching each other starve to death through expensive television sets.
    • In Place of Fear (William Heinemann Ltd, 1952), p. 192
  • If freedom is to be saved and enlarged, poverty must be ended. There is no other solution.
    • In Place of Fear, 1952
  • There can be no immaculate conception of socialism.
    • Oft repeated: see John Campbell "Nye Bevan" (Richard Cohen Books, 1997)
  • We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.
    • In the Observer, 6 December 1953.
  • I know that the right kind of leader for the Labour Party is a kind of desiccated calculating-machine who must not in any way permit himself to be swayed by indignation. If he sees suffering, privation or injustice, he must not allow it to move him, for that would be evidence of the lack of proper education or of absence of self-control. He must speak in calm and objective accents and talk about a dying child in the same way as he would about the pieces inside an internal combustion engine.
    • Tribune Rally, 29 September 1954, in response to Clement Attlee's wish for a non-emotional response to German rearmament. The remark 'desiccated calculating-machine' is often taken as a Bevan jibe against Hugh Gaitskell who became Labour Party leader the following year.
  • Damn it all, you can't have the crown of thorns and the thirty pieces of silver.
    • On his position in the Labour Party (c. 1956), quoted in Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan: A Biography, Volume 2 (1973), p. 503
  • Bevan described the proposal for a free trade market for Europe as a "will-of-the-wisp" which they were expected to spend their time following in Westminster. The whole idea was purely a nineteenth-century conception.
    • Speech in Bristol (20 October 1956), quoted in The Times (22 October 1956), p. 2
  • Sir Anthony Eden has been pretending that he is now invading Egypt in order to strengthen the United Nations. Every burglar of course could say the same thing, he could argue that he was entering the house in order to train the police. So, if Sir Anthony Eden is sincere in what he is saying, and he may be, he may be, then if he is sincere in what he is saying then he is too stupid to be a prime minister.
    • Speech on November 4th at "Law not War" rally in Trafalgar Square, London, during the Suez crisis of 1956.
  • The great Powers of the world today as they look at the armaments they have built up, find themselves hopelessly frustrated. If that be the case, what is the use of speaking about first-class, second-class and third-class Powers? That is surely the wrong language to use. It does not comply with contemporary reality. What we have to seek is new ways of being great, new modes of pioneering, new fashions of thought, new means of inspiring and igniting the minds of mankind. We can do so.
    • Hansard, House of Commons, 5th series, vol. 562, cols. 1404-5.
    • Speech in the House of Commons, 19 December 1956.
  • [The Common Market is not] a blueprint for European prosperity and stability. ...[it is] the result of a political malaise following upon the failure of Socialists to use the sovereign power of their Parliaments to plan their economic life. ... Socialists cannot at one and the same time call for economic planning and accept the verdict of free competition, no matter how extensive the area it covers. The jungle is not made more acceptable just because it is almost limitless.
    • Article in Tribune, quoted in The Times (31 August 1957), p. 7 and The Times (14 October 1957), p. 8
  • I knew this morning that I was going to make a speech that would offend, and even hurt, many of my friends. I know that you are deeply convinced that the action you suggest is the most effective way of influencing international affairs. I am deeply convinced that you are wrong. It is therefore not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed. It is the most difficult of all problems facing mankind. But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications — and do not run away from it — you will send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber. ... And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.
    • Speech at the Labour Party Conference (4 October 1957), on unilateral nuclear disarmament.
  • Just consider, all the little nations running for shelter here and there, one running to Russia and another to the United States. In that situation before anything else would happen, the world will have been polarised between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is against that negative polarisation we have been fighting for years. We want to have the opportunity to interpose between these two giants a moderating, modifying and mitigating diplomacy.
    • Speech at the Labour Party Conference (4 October 1957), on unilateral nuclear disarmament.
  • The challenge is going to come from Russia. The challenge is not going to come from the United States. The challenge is not going to come from West Germany nor from France. The challenge is going to come from those countries who, however wrong they may be – and I think they are wrong in many fundamental respects – nevertheless are at long last being able to reap the material fruits of economic planning and of public ownership. ... Our main case is and must remain that in a modern complex society it is impossible to get rational order by leaving things to private economic adventure. Therefore I am a Socialist. I believe in public ownership.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (October 1959), quoted in Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan: A Biography. Volume II: 1945–1960 (Davis-Poynter, 1973), pp. 646–647 and Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson (Harper Collins, 1993), p. 230
  • This so-called affluent society is an ugly society still. It is a vulgar society. It is a meretricious society. It is a society in which priorities have gone all wrong.
    • Speech in Blackpool (29 November 1959), quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1999), p. 72
  • Unless we plan our resources purposefully, unless we are prepared to accept the disciplines that are necessary, we shall not be able to meet the challenge of the Communist world. As the years go by, and the people see us languishing behind, trying to prevent the evils of inflation by industrial stagnation, trying all the time to catch up with things because we have not acted soon enough—when they see the Communist world, planned, organised, publicly-owned and flaunting its achievements to the rest of the world—they will come to be educated by what they will experience. They will realise that Western democracy is falling behind in the race because it is not prepared to read intelligently the lessons of the twentieth century.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (3 November 1959)


  • I read the newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.
    • Interview in The Times (29 March 1960), p. 7


  • I stuffed their mouths with gold.
    • Around 1948, Nye Bevan engineered a notorious "bribe" to win the support of hospital consultants. The father of the NHS made his famous declaration after he brokered a deal in which consultants were paid handsomely for their NHS work while allowing them to maintain private practices.
    • Source: Quote and story in the *Guardian, 2 July 2004.
  • He refers to a defeat as if it came from God, but a victory as if it came from himself.


  • The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.
    • Frequently attributed to Bevan as his own words, and sometimes sourced to remarks to NHS patients in 1948 (example), but believed to have been misattributed. The statement was not written down until the television play about Bevan, 'Food for Ravens' by Trevor Griffiths. Griffiths himself attributes it to Bevan: "I have no written source for it, but old Bevanites in the coalfields were saying something like it during the strikes of the 80s and often quoting Nye as the source." (The truth of Nye Bevan’s words on the NHS) In the script, a dying Bevan is asked by a young boy if he will be remembered for creating the NHS:
      Bevan: Maybe, if it lasts.
      Boy: (looking at press cuttings) Says here it will last forever.
      Bevan: No such thing as forever, boy. It will last only as long as there's folk with faith left to fight for it.

Quotes about Aneurin BevanEdit

  • The tool of Marxist analysis that Bevan employed to underpin his criticism of the social and economic system attracted many followers but he was too much of a romantic and poet to believe that the aridities of Marxism, especially as distorted by Stalin, could be a cure for our ills. In personal relations Nye emanated great charm and conversation with him was a delight. The talk bubbed and his flashing intelligence touched what he said with vividness so that new insights seemed to pour from him. At his best on the public platform or in the House of Commons he was magic. He could lift an audience so that they shared with him new heights of understanding and awareness; he could fell his enemies – and sometimes disconcert his friends – with a single devastating phrase, and disarm opponents with a droll wit if the mood was on him.
  • He excelled as a critic, but, in contrast to Ernest Bevin, creative thought at that time was not his strongest characteristic. He would present any number of difficulties to any proposition which came from official sources, but seldom put forward any constructive proposals of a practical character. ... Aneurin Bevan's speech [to the Trades Union Congress at Brighton in 1933] was typical of him as he was at that time—well-phrased, fluent, tricky, and entirely unconvincing. Bevan was a politician by instinct and temperament and he rightly concentrated his main activities in that sphere. In my experience he exercised a negligible influence on trade union policy and action. How different from Ernest Bevin!
  • He was, I believe, the most principled great political leader of the century in the sense that to sustain and apply his principles in practice was the motive power of his life, the passion that absorbed him while others were engaged in the darker corners of the political workshop. … Aneurin Bevan, I believe, did more than any other man of his time to keep alive democratic socialism as the most adventurous, ambitious, intelligent, civilised and truly liberal of modern doctrines. This, the triumph of his whole life and personality, was the greatest of his achievements.
    • Michael Foot, Tribune (8 July 1960), quoted in Brian Brivati (ed.), The Uncollected Michael Foot: Essays Old and New (2003), pp. 253–254
  • In Place of Fear, which Bevan wrote in the white heat of his resignation, exhibits a broad-minded tolerance and intellectual imagination quite foreign to many of his disciples. At the same time he was too impatient of reality.
  • Bevan and I hardly addressed a word to each other throughout the decade [1950s]. ... Bevan was petulant and vain, but he was on the frontier of being a great man, and he was certainly a great talker and a considerable wit. To shut oneself off from any concourse with him was like forgoing the opportunity to talk to Fox or Disraeli.
  • Nye is asleep next door. Later today he will be taken home to Wales. Tomorrow he will be cremated in keeping with his known views. He was never a hypocrite. No falsity must touch him once he is no longer available to defend his views. He was not a cold-blooded rationalist. He was no calculating machine. He was a great humanist whose religion lay in loving his fellow men and trying to serve them... He knelt reverently in respect to a friend or friend's faith, but he never pretended to be anything other than what he was, a humanist.
  • He was the most hated—if also the most idolized—politician of his time. … [I]n five and a half years at the Ministry of Health under Attlee he was to prove himself a great constructive pioneer. He was unusual, almost unique, in the labour movement in combining strong socialist principles with rare creative gifts of practical statesmanship. No less than his fellow-countryman, David Lloyd George, he was to prove himself an artist in the uses of power. … He remains, perhaps, the most attractive figure the British socialist movement has produced in its eighty-odd years of fitful life.
    • Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants, Hardie to Kinnock (Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 204–205, 218
  • Nye Bevan dies at 4.15 in the afternoon. I regret the loss of this splendid coloured figure and a great parliamentarian and patriot. When I was once being scolded for being malicious in my descriptions of people, Nye protested, "Harold is not malicious at all, He is the angel of pity."
  • Those who heard Aneurin Bevan command the House of Commons, in his great days, with an eloquence surpassed, if at all, only by Churchill, are reminded by the biographer's quotations how strangely similar those two antagonistic orators were. Their marvellous and often unexpected vocabulary was that of the self-educated; their oratory often approached, and sometimes crossed, the bounds of intemperance; and they were capable of descent from flights of true imagination to depths of bathos. Bevan's style belonged, like Churchill's, to a more spacious parliamentary and political era, already past before he died.
    • Enoch Powell, 'Bevan Agonistes', Listener (11 October 1973), quoted in Reflections of a Statesman: The Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell (1991), p. 310

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