Magazine article The Spectator

Well Nye a Myth

Magazine article The Spectator

Well Nye a Myth

Article excerpt

IN THE Labour party pantheon Nye Bevan still stands the tallest. Even New Labour, for all its contempt for history, seems to want at least to touch the mantle of Nye in the centenary year of his birth.

Tony Blair has written a foreword to a new, admiring book of essays on the great Welshman (The State of the Nation: The Political Legacy of Aneurin Bevan, edited by Geoffrey Goodman, Gollancz, 20), in which he describes Nye as 'a genuine hero'. It is true that the Prime Minister substitutes the word 'radicalism' for 'socialism' in describing Bevan's political philosophy, and that he enthuses over Nye's `managerial skills' in the creation of the National Health Service, but he also accepts that since Nye's death, in July 1960, his `reputation and charisma have been kept alive within the party, his ideas and personality and rhetoric passed on from generation to generation'.

Peter Mandelson, grandson of Herbert Morrison, whom Bevan detested, also seeks - however implausibly - to associate the New Labour project with Nye. He concludes his influential book on the Blair Revolution with a banal Bevan utterance: `Free men can use free institutions to solve the social and economic problems of the day.'

Many senior Labour figures before Mr Blair and Mr Mandelson have hankered to identify themselves with the Nye legend. As Labour leaders, Harold Wilson and later Neil Kinnock were often shameless in the use they made of Bevan's legacy when seeking to buttress their own socialist credentials before restless Labour conference audiences.

His meaningless maxim `The religion of socialism is the language of priorities' was turned into a Labour cliche which found favour on all sides. The Nye legend was helped enormously by the two volumes of hagiography brilliantly written by his disciple, Michael Foot. These are to be reissued this autumn as a single condensed version edited by Dr Brian Brivati, ironically the recent biographer of Hugh Gait-skell, everlasting enemy of the Bevanites.

Nobody would deny the oratorical brilliance of Bevan as both parliamentary performer and orator at Labour rallies before adoring crowds. He was a larger-than-life, protean character, attractive to his own friends in the raffish style of Charles James Fox at the end of the 18th century. Once described by Churchill as a `squalid nuisance', Nye was an effective irritant of the wartime coalition and one-man defender of civil liberties during the second world war. Many of his foes in the party forgave his volcanic outbursts and self-indulgence because they recognised his enduring if contrasting qualities of passion and rationality and wanted to harness his exuberant talents to Labour's cause.

But today Bevan needs badly to be rescued for posterity from the clutches of his uncritical admirers. Too much has been claimed for what was his ambiguous achievement. Geoffrey Goodman, a perceptive veteran industrial correspondent, believes Nye was close in thinking to Tony Crosland, the arch-revisionist, and can lay claim to be the first of Labour's modernisers. Apparently, Nye's abilities as a prophet ensured he predicted over 30 years ago the seminal events of the end of Soviet communism and the arrival of globalisation. Among Labour's pygmies Nye is seen as a giant --imaginative, compassionate, idealistic, but also pragmatic and responsible.

To many old Bevanites, Nye remains Labour's lost leader, thwarted by the stupidity and malevolence of his misguided enemies. Mr Goodman even quotes Gaitskell's widow, Dora, confessing on one occasion that Nye was 'a natural leader for a socialist party' and that he, instead of her husband, should have been leader.

The trouble with idolatry is that it distorts the historical complexity of a fascinating figure. By turning Nye almost into a demigod, the Bevanites have done their hero a grave disservice, for in so many ways he was much like other men: complicated, contradictory and, ultimately, flawed. …

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