My history hero: Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (1897–1960)

On 5 July 1948, the National Health Service (NHS) was born. On its 70th anniversary, we revisit an interview with Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who explains why she admires 20th-century politician Aneurin Bevan

Welsh Labour politician Aneurin Bevan making a speech on the freedom of the press at a meeting of the National Council of Civil Liberties at Central Hall, Westminster, London, in 1942. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (1897–1960) was the Labour MP for Ebbw Vale in south Wales from 1929–60. As minister of health in Attlee’s postwar government from 1945–51, he spearheaded the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. He went on to serve as shadow foreign secretary from 1956–59 and deputy leader of the Labour party from 1959–60. He died of stomach cancer, aged 62.

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When did you first hear about Nye Bevan?

I grew up in Wales and he’s a Welsh hero in a way, so I just got to hear about him. As a teenager, I remember seeing a statue of him in Cardiff city centre, and also hearing my grandparents talking about him. He was always just kind of there in the background, and the more I learnt about him, the more interested I became in the man.

What made Bevan a hero?

He was a man with big dreams – and he fought to turn his dreams into reality. He saw at first hand how difficult life was for the mass of ordinary working people in south Wales and elsewhere, not just for the men down the mines, but their wives and families – particularly if they were in poor health. And he was determined to make life a little easier for them by creating the National Health Service: to provide better, affordable care for them when they were sick.

What was his finest hour?

For me, it’s all about the NHS. But for the NHS, I wouldn’t be alive today, and would certainly never have been able to compete in the Paralympics – because my parents could never have afforded to pay for the operations that I needed when I was growing up. It was Nye Bevan more than anyone else who drove through the parliamentary bills that resulted in the creation of the National Health Service, which for all its faults, is still the envy of much of the world.

What kind of person was he?

I think he was stubborn, argumentative and probably a bit of a pain in the neck sometimes – but at the same time he was a man of passion and principle, who was of course a lifelong socialist. He was also a man of great determination. He was damned if his humble origins – he was the son of a coal miner and left school at just 13 – would prevent his advancement, and he went on to study economics, and make a name for himself in politics. At the same time, he was determined to conquer his childhood stammer – and he succeeded, going on to become a great orator.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Bevan?

I imagine that he could have been difficult to work with, and wouldn’t have been a great compromiser. I doubt he would have been very forgiving either.

Can you see any parallels between Bevan’s life and your own?

Like him, I’m a great believer in education: because education gives you choices. Like him, I’m also proud of my Welsh roots – though, having said that, England and Britain have also been a big part of our lives. Finally, like Nye, I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind, despite the fact that not everyone might agree with me!

If you could meet Bevan, what would you ask him?

I’d like to ask him what he would do about the NHS today, and how he would reform it? The world has changed beyond recognition since he created the NHS, and how it was created can’t be how it is now.

Tanni-Grey Thompson was talking to York Membery. Tanni Grey-Thompson won 11 gold medals for Britain at the Paralympics as a wheelchair racer. She now sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords

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This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine