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The fiery orator behind the NHS

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While we are still celebrating 60 years of the NHS it is good to remember Aneurin Bevan (1897–1960), its chief architect. A son of South Wales, Bevan went into the coal pit at the age of 13 and cut his teeth in trade union issues and politics in the Valleys. He overcame a vocal impediment and went on to achieve mastery as a speaker. His desire for knowledge was immense and he was largely self-educated.

In 1929 he became Labour MP for Ebbw Vale, a seat that he held until his death. A brilliant spontaneous debater, he was, however, turbulent and had a highly independent outlook. Bevan was frequently as critical of his own party as he was of his opponents. He sometimes displayed ill-temper and rudeness: he regarded Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell as a “desiccated calculating machine”. After the 1939–45 war he involuntarily gave his name to the party’s radical left wing, the Bevanites. Latterly his speeches became less aggressive and he was regarded as the best speaker in the House after Winston Churchill.

Bevan was appointed Minister of Health and Housing in the 1945 Labour Government. He saw health as a political issue and worked to ensure that politicians were the ultimate guardians of the nation’s well-being: “When a bedpan is dropped on a hospital floor, its noise should resound in the Palace of Westminster.”

The passage of the National Health Service Act of 1946 and the two years of talks with doctors and dentists, leading to the introduction of the scheme, were his finest achievements. The negotiations were painstaking and were conducted on a grand scale. Bevan displayed more patience and flexibility than were usually at his command in bringing to a successful outcome a cause that was dear to his heart.

Bevan fought for his beliefs with vehemence, but also with gaiety and wit. He was an original — baffling and infuriating, but his sincerity and stature were never in doubt.

A large man whose black hair silvered elegantly, he had immense vitality and exercised great personal charm and magnetism. He was sustained by his wife Jennie Lee, herself a staunch left-wing member of the Labour Party. With his passing much of the colour and passion went out of politics.

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