Architect of social reform

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Bevan By Clare Beckett and Frances Beckett Haus Publishing pound;9.99

Although the National Health Service is still the social institution of which the British feel most proud, its key architect - Aneurin Bevan - has drifted out of the public consciousness.

The authors of this book have attempted to address this issue with a biography which asserts that Bevan's imprint on society "is greater than that of any but two or three 20th century politicians". The book describes convincingly how Bevan's working-class background provided him with a burning sense of social injustice, but how he chose to pursue change directly through parliament rather than indirectly through the trade unions, stating that "we must try to regain in parliament what we have lost on the industrial battlefield". The authors are right to assert that their subject was not a "natural born rebel": rather, he was single-minded to the point of being stubborn and he became increasingly frustrated with the pragmatic - or, as he would have seen it, unprincipled - behaviour of his colleagues. It is this feature of his character that makes Bevan so eminently quotable ("Fascism is not in itself a new order of society. It is the future refusing to be born"). Nevertheless, if we accept that politics is the art of compromise, Bevan was in some ways a terribly damaging force within the Labour party: a fact which the authors are rather unwilling to acknowledge. The BevaniteGaskillite split in Labour effectively ensured 13 years of Conservative dominance as the left and the right ripped the party to shreds over issues such as unilateral disarmament and the role of the unions. The implication that Bevan was manoeuvred unknowingly into leading one of the biggest in-party factional disputes of the 20th century is unconvincing and perhaps a little naive.

Disappointingly, little attention is given to Bevan's private life, ostensibly because it was so unexceptional, but the author makes up for this with an excellent assessment of Bevan's long-term legacy. This is perhaps the strongest element of the book, with attention given to the changes in the structure of the service, the role of privatisation and its impact on society at both a literal level (lower death rates, higher demand) and on a more implicit level in regards to the creation of a new social attitude towards the state.

The accessibility of the language and the interesting tone of this book makes it an appropriate choice for AS and A2 students. However, the thematic approach of the authors does mean that it would need to be supplemented with other reading material as some issues - such as the internal factionalism and the actual mechanics of the NHS itself - are only explored briefly.

Overall, this is an engaging work which takes heed of Bevan's own remark:

"Reading is not a duty, and has consequently no business to be made disagreeable."

Julia Zafar teaches history at Wolverhampton Grammar School

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