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Why Nye?

February 20th 2012

Victoria Winckler writes in today’s Western Mail to argue that Aneurin Bevan should be voted the St. David’s Day icon for health.

Without doubt Wales’ national hero should be Aneurin Bevan.  Bevan deserves this status because he transformed the lives of millions of ordinary people.

Bevan’s towering achievement was of course the NHS.  Thanks to Bevan, for the first time health care was available free at the point of delivery to anyone who needed it, paid for through general taxation. Cost was no longer a barrier to getting much-needed treatment, nor was the insurance status of the person needing treatment.

Bevan’s NHS has been the vital ingredient in massive improvements in people’s health. The NHS has not only ensured that everyone, irrespective of their wealth, has access to treatment, it has also enabled new treatments to emerge. Life expectancy at birth in Wales is nearly 20 years longer than in 1931, due in no small part to the NHS.

But the impact of the NHS goes deeper than that.  As Bevan wanted, it has removed fear.  Today it is illness itself (and then only the most serious) that brings fear, not the crippling cost. The availability of free, good quality health care gives ordinary people a freedom that we take for granted today.

And if all this is not enough, the NHS is one of our most valued institutions.  A recent Ipsos Mori poll found that more than 85 per cent are very or fairly satisfied with the treatment they received.

The introduction of the NHS was by no means straightforward –Bevan faced stiff opposition.  The then chairman of the BMA described the NHS bill as “the first step to national socialism as practiced in Germany” – coming just a year after the end of the Second World War this was inflammatory stuff. Despite some compromises, Bevan drove through the key principles and the NHS came into being on 5th July 1948.

And there’s more: namely Bevan’s contribution to housing.

Bevan’s commitment to decent housing goes back to his time as a councillor in Tredegar, where he saw the misery of damp, cold, over-crowded homes. When he became a Minister, it was as Minister for Health and Housing, the strong link between ill-health and poor housing being obvious.

Bevan’s 1949 Housing Act removed the restriction of public housing to the ‘working classes’ so that council housing was available to all.  For a short time, council housing was a genuine alternative to private renting or ownership, and was built in large quantities. More council houses were built in Wales between 1945 and 1951 than have been built since 1975.

Bevan’s contribution to the quality of council housing is less well recognised.  He insisted on good design, increased space standards and the provision of an upstairs and downstairs w.c. – all revolutionary at a time when two-thirds of houses in the Rhondda valleys did not have an indoor toilet.  It is no accident that post-war council housing remains some of the most well-built and popular even 60 years on.

Bevan’s achievements have without question transformed people’s lives for the better, and it is for that contribution that he must be recognised. He courted controversy during his political life with his acerbic comments about his political opponents and his views on nuclear disarmament and devolution, and in his private life with his enjoyment of the good life. Frankly, I don’t think his liking for champagne or his views about the Tories matter one iota – all leaders have their foibles and are of their time.  It is his achievements that matter – and there can be no greater achievements than better health and better housing for ordinary people.

 Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation

If you would like to find out more about Aneurin Bevan there are some excellent biographies available online

One Response to “Why Nye?”

  1. […] almost-there feeling of 50s council housing, a mix of the earlier, decent-sized houses (as per Bevan’s limit of 12 dwellings per acre) with the later, more typically municipal boxes which flourished […]

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