Nye Bevan, Black Marketeer; Mark Roodhouse Finds a Dark Secret in One of the Champions of the 1945 Labour Landslide

By Roodhouse, Mark | History Today, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Nye Bevan, Black Marketeer; Mark Roodhouse Finds a Dark Secret in One of the Champions of the 1945 Labour Landslide


Roodhouse, Mark, History Today


IN JULY 1948 ANEURIN BEVAN, the Labour Minister of Health and Housing and doyen of the Labour Left, was at the peak of his political powers: the National Health Service, which he had done much to create, opened for business, the house-building programme was gathering pace, and he secured his reputation as a socialist firebrand by condemning Conservatives as 'lower than vermin' in one of his speeches. Recently discovered statements and reports in a London Metropolitan Police file reveal that 1948 was also the year in which Bevan came perilously close to damaging his reputation as the 'People's Tribune', and proving that his Conservative critics such as Brendan Bracken, who had dubbed him a 'Bollinger Bolshevik' and a 'ritzy Robespierre', had his measure.

Since Bevan's vermin speech, the Tories had been looking for mud to sling at him. In September 1948 Conservative Central Office advised journalists to pay close attention to a court case involving a Surrey retailer who was charged with black-market offences. The Conservative publicity officer Mark Chapman-Walker believed that Bevan had bought black-market pork and eggs from the retailer. The reporters were to be disappointed, as Bevan's name was not mentioned during the court case.

In her memoir My Life with Nye (1980), Jennie Lee, Bevan's wife, recalled the desperate Tory attempts to smear her husband's reputation. On one occasion a woman whom Lee believed to be a prostitute, flung herself at Bevan while he was walking along the Embankment late at night. Bevan pushed the woman away while a press photographer tried to capture a shot of her embracing Bevan without success.

Lee was fighting a battle on two fronts. In her memoirs she admits that her mother, Ma Lee, who lived with the couple and kept house for them, augmented the family's rations with black-market meat from Rene de Meo, owner of Chelsea's Pheasantry Club, with whom Lee and Bevan were friendly. According to Lee, she was horrified when she discovered what had been going on and immediately put a stop to the illegal dealings. The story seems to be a candid revelation, but in fact it is a partial account of a relationship that could have destroyed the political careers of Lee and Bevan.

In November 1948 two detectives from the joint Metropolitan Police and City of London Police Fraud Squad were investigating allegations that Bevan was corrupt and involved in black-market dealing. Clive Burnett, a former Ministry of Transport official, had contacted the police, alleging that Bevan helped de Meo to purchase and import Italian furniture during 1946, implying that Bevan fast-tracked de Meo's applications for foreign currency and an import licence. The police treated Burnett's allegations seriously as they were already investigating allegations of corruption involving a junior minister at the Board of Trade, a Director of the Bank of England, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Minister of Works, the Solicitor-General and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on behalf of the Lynskey Tribunal, which the Prime Minister appointed to enquire into the allegations in October.

The detectives investigating Bevan also interviewed Burnett, who recommended that the detectives speak to Joan Parsons. …

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