Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 12 Apr 2017

In Place of Fear by Aneurin Bevan

In general terms, it has not been my experience that political tracts travel well down through time. There are classic exceptions to this trend of course but in comparison to the amount of material generated over the years they are comparatively few and far between. The turgid and obscure tend to easily out-weigh those that embody some deeper truths that remain relevant to us all.

In recent weeks largely because of the emerging crisis around the state of the National Health Service and social care I have been forced back to look at Aneurin Bevan’s book In Place of Fear which stands as a vindication of the policies of the post-war Labour Government and their creation of a welfare state. Written in 1952 when Labour had been, once again, ousted from power this is Bevan’s attempt to establish and explain a socialist vision – which would I suspect now be seen more as a manifesto for a social democracy.

What Bevan is able to say here gains its authority in coming from a man who not only has a clear, ideologically-based platform but also has had the real time experience of implementing policies that everyone predicted would be a failure. The daring and commitment shown by the 1945-51 Labour administration who were able to reshape society in the face of the country’s largest ever financial deficit stands in stark contrast to the spineless and bureaucratically incompetent way the most recent financial crisis has been handled.

Bevan’s starting point in this book is to ask the question ‘how does Parliamentary democracy work and what is it for?’. In answering that question Bevan asserts that it is the role of the parliament to be an active debating chamber not ‘holding the ring’ for the status quo but always battling for change. He sees it as an institution that creates the future circumstances in which we will all live and must, as a result, be properly representative in terms of class interests.

Other parties do not assert the wisdom of collective action through Parliament as their core creed. At most they ascribe to Parliament the function of assembling the conditions in which private initiative can operate most fruitfully….With the Socialist it is otherwise. From the outset he asserts the efficacy of State action and of collective policies………Boldness in words must be matched by boldness in deeds or the result will be universal malaise, a debilitation of the public will……..Audacity is the mood that should prevail amongst Socialists as they apply the full armament of democratic values to the problems of the times.

The problems of poverty and of building long term solutions to poverty cannot, Bevan outlines, be solved by the individual in private arrangements with businesses seeking profit. There are social goods that can only be gained from collective action. One such public good is health which Bevan turns to in the chapter called A Free Health Service. He acknowledges that the creation of the NHS is often seen as synonymous with the overall creation of a welfare state and this, he claims, is because it embodies all the virtues of that bigger philosophy.

Society becomes more wholesome, more serene, and spiritually healthier, if it knows that its citizens have at their back of their consciousness the knowledge that not only themselves, but all of their fellows, have access, when ill, to the best that medical skill can provide.

So the existence of the NHS and the wider welfare state is less about financial or administrative efficacy and much more about what it means to be a decent human being and a good neighbour.

So, what does In Place of Fear have to tell us about the current state of the NHS and why it is that we seem to have a political class that is intent on creating crisis in the service as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy? The consistent starving of the health and social care infrastructure of adequate funding is, I’m sure, an ideological ruse to ‘prove’ that the days of the free, collectively provided health service are over. It is, the bean-counters would have us believe, a service that cannot be afforded and that there is no alternative to a, profit-based health service built around private insurance. Well, it seems, this is indeed something Bevan himself anticipated:

The National Health Service and the welfare state have come to be used as interchangeable terms, and in the mouths of some people as terms of reproach. Why this is so is not difficult to understand, if you view everything from the angle of a strictly individualistic Competitive Society. A free health service is pure Socialism and as such it is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society.

Throughout the history of the welfare state its founding principles have always been in peril – under attack from rapacious capitalism seeking to benefit from atomising society and convincing us that we have to act as individuals in competition rather than a community in solidarity. The best defence of the NHS doesn’t come from seeking efficiency but from proselytising the values of collective caring and the need to reject the arguments of those seeking to further concentrate wealth and advantage for themselves and their own families at the expense of everyone else. The last word goes to Bevan himself:

The attempt of democratic socialism to universalise the consumption of the best that society can afford meets with resistance from those whose sense of values is deformed by the daily parade of functionless wealth


Terry Potter

April 2017