Nye Bevan meant trouble


Thank you very much indeed, Donna, for letting me speak at this great occasion. Your department, and this university, are going from strength to strength, and this development is an important part of this progress.

Nye Bevan is a great brand name.

So great, that people should think at least twice before they apply it to any new product.

First, they need to think whether they really want to be associated with a man Winston Churchill described as “as great a curse to his country in time of peace as he was a squalid nuisance in time of war”,[1] and who was for one year expelled from the Labour Party for consorting with Communists in defence of the Spanish Republic.

For people who live from their property and power rather than their work, Nye Bevan meant trouble.

Second, the Bevan brand implies principle.

It’s important to be clear what the central principle of Bevan’s NHS actually was; not just that the NHS should be free, but that health care would cease to be a traded commodity.

He accepted that many consultants would continue to trade privately in the spare time these dreadfully busy and overworked people somehow contrived always to have, but he was confident that once their main instruments of production – the hospitals, together with their staff and equipment – had been nationalised, private consultant practice would soon dwindle to insignificance.

Like everyone else in the Labour movement, but more deeply and tenaciously than anyone else, Bevan believed that neither health care nor education should be traded commodities, that their public provision should not be a business pursued for profit, and that a healthy and educated nation was a shared asset for all, not just the sum of competing personal gains.

This building, and this university, are triumphant material expressions of that belief.

Bevan believed in a free NHS, free in two senses: firstly that patients would no longer have to worry about whether they could afford care, and secondly that doctors would no longer have to worry about recovering fees from people who could scarcely pay their rents or mortgages.

If anyone here thinks those problems lie in some distant past, they need to be reminded that in USA, the wealthiest nation in the world with the most advanced medical technology, 18% of citizens have access only to emergency care, medical costs are the most frequent cause of bankruptcy, and both of these trends are rising.

For Nye Bevan, the principle of a free service, developing as a gift economy rather than as trade for profit, was central – so much so, that when Treasury secretary Hugh Gaitskell drove the first prescription charges through Attlee’s cabinet, Bevan resigned his Ministry and returned to the back benches, where he became a thorn in the flesh thereafter for every coward who flinched and traitor who sneered.

I find it amazing that so little media attention has been paid to the fact that our Wales Assembly government has found the courage and imagination this year to end all prescription charges for NHS prescribed medication, revoking precisely that step back to toward a priced rather than valued society, which Bevan refused to take.

Why the silence?

Perhaps, when every officially recognised expert in anything has almost forgotten where the Labour movement came from, when none dares to imagine any society other than the one we have, and all agree that the only way to end poverty is to make rich people richer still, they simply cannot believe their eyes; it must be a mistake, a transient folly that will soon give way to more urgent and common sense issues, like getting a supercasino for Swansea.

But no, this can’t be a mistake.

This defiance of all current notions of public service “reform” is too big to ignore much longer, even if it stays almost mute.

And it’s not the only one.

Wales long ago stopped going down the PFI road to ruinously expensive private investment in public services, with contracts hidden from public accountability by 30 years of commercial secrecy.

No corporate investor offering primary care in supermarkets has yet been invited to replace established family doctors, as they have in England.

No Welsh NHS hospital has been compelled to compete with its neighbouring hospitals for survival, nor have Welsh GPs and their patients been compelled to make consumer choices nobody ever asked for.

Offered every encouragement to slit our own throats, we have obstinately refused, despite every assurance that it can only do us good.

So watch this bust carefully, and respect its still explosive power.

Nye’s ghost is alive and well, even if he now operates silently, with that shrewd Welsh subtlety that can slip us through bad times.

He still has a mighty place not just in history, but in the world of social justice yet to come, and in this university he will be in safe hands.
[1] Hansard vol.416, col.2544

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