Liberty, Bevan and Welsh Labour

Bevan’s speeches and phrases are continually referenced by politicians from all parties. As part of the ‘Bevan and Wales’ series, Nye Davies discusses Welsh Labour’s latest rebranding invoking Bevan.

Bevan as Welsh Labour hero

Aneurin Bevan is a mythical figure in the history of the Labour Party, being considered one of its greatest heroes. In Wales Bevan is not claimed as a hero just by Labour supporters, he has been hailed as a ‘Welsh’ icon also.

His influence on the modern Welsh Labour Party has been seen time and again. For instance, Welsh Labour figures such as the late Rhodri Morgan argued in his Clear Red Water speech that the actions of Welsh Labour owed more to the traditions of the likes of Bevan. (I detailed invocations of Bevan by Welsh Labour and other parties during the 2016 Welsh Assembly election here).

Welsh Labour has been drawing on the legacy of Bevan during the 2017 Royal Welsh Show, selling posters and bags and promoting the above drawing of Bevan accompanied by the quote “We weren’t born with liberty, we had to win it”. The Welsh Labour Twitter page has even had a rebranding:

This is not the first time this line has been used. It was included in Owen Smith’s Labour leadership campaign video, where Bevan faded into a clip of Smith campaigning. Smith continually invoked Bevan during his leadership campaign (an invocation that General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain Robert Griffiths has taken great issue with in the past).

Winning liberty

The line echoes similar pronouncements in Bevan’s career on the need to win political and economic liberty for the working class, a common theme in his political thought.

“In societies of the West, industrial democracy is the counterpart of political freedom. Liberty and responsibility march together. They must be joined in the workshop as in the legislative assembly. Only when this is accomplished shall we have the foundations of a buoyant and stable civilization.”[1]

The line in the poster was made during a speech on the eve of the 1953 Labour Party Conference[2]. From the linked video, it appears to relate to the peoples of the Soviet Union and China eventually winning liberty. Bevan was warning against involvement with the Soviet Union and China, warning that Britain should not “exploit” developments in these countries.

“We musn’t say ‘ah, the Russians are now being embarrassed, here is our chance to make the Cold War hotter or to get tough’. When we see that there are certain changes taking place in the Soviet masses and in China, we must regard them not as conditions to exploit, but as opportunities to make use of in the interest of agreement”.

The line “we weren’t born with liberty…” was preceded by “after all, we did it” and followed by “and remember, although we had to defend it on the battlefield we never won it there. We won it at home in the workshop, in the factories…in the mines”. Bevan was arguing that the people of the Soviet Union and China would win liberty and that there would be changes to these countries, just as there had been in Britain.

It was a common theme of Bevan’s throughout his career. He discussed it at length in In Place of Fear where he argued that the worker in the Soviet Union would eventually gain freedom as its economy developed.

His belief in the eventual liberalisation of the Soviet Union did not mean he was uncritical of the regime: in his speech, he complained that the Red Army had gone “beyond its sociological frontiers. When it tried to occupy Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany…the Soviet Union would soon suffer from political indigestion”. But, he argued, the Soviet Union was coming to recognise that “it is only able to make itself tolerable to the populations of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Eastern Germany by liberalising and modification of its policies. That is now to be seen”. Bevan called for an agreement between Britain and the Soviet Union.

Later in a 1957 Tribune article, despite his reservations of the Soviet Union, he still expressed the belief that since the Russian Revolution of 1917 “millions of workers have a feeling of liberation”[3].

Radical words, radical action

In context, this quote makes sense. Bevan was arguing that any sign of dissent within the Soviet Union should be treated as an opportunity to promote common interests.

Taken out of this context and placed as a line on a poster (or in Owen Smith’s case a campaign video), what does the quote mean? It is a nice line – Bevan was known to produce some effective phrases in his speeches and writings – but by using it as a simple soundbite, what value does it have?

Perhaps it is Welsh Labour’s rallying cry for the party to “win liberty” from UK Labour in the wake of splits over Brexit, coming hot on the heels of (expletive) comments made by a former Welsh Minister. I highly doubt this though.

It could well be argued that I am attempting to read too much into it and some may argue that I’m creating something out of nothing, but I disagree. It is important to analyse the rhetoric and the practices of Welsh Labour in order to understand the nature of party politics in Wales and symbols and branding are central to that.

Welsh Labour since devolution has steeped itself in the socialist tradition of Wales but what does it actually mean when phrases are just being repeated?

Instead of simply reciting his quotes out of / with no context, figures like Bevan need to be critically analysed. Take the quote on the poster. We should instead be asking questions about its meaning. How do individuals win liberty today? Do people truly have liberty? What does liberty even mean in today’s world? From a Welsh perspective, how does that quote relate to the policies and actions of the Welsh Labour Government? If we are to look to the words and ideas of history, they need to be utilised. They are meaningless if we don’t understand what they mean for (Welsh) politics today.

Winning liberty was central to Bevan’s conception of power and this was reflected in his maxim that “the purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away”, a line that Bevan’s biographer Michael Foot noted that Bevan was fond of saying. But we should ask how is that to be achieved today? What is the nature of power in the 21st century and in a devolved Wales? The question becomes more pertinent in the wake of Brexit and the repatriation of powers.

The power of the soundbite

Gwyn Alf Williams argued that we need to utilise our history: “the corpses of the dead generations do weigh like an Alp on the brains of the living. This is why we must assimilate their experience if only to get shot of them”.

Using radical language is not the same as radical action. By failing to assimilate the experiences and ideas of the past, eventually you will end up with a large stock of quotes which don’t actually mean anything in practice.

Bevan argued that it was all about power with a purpose. We need to also begin to see soundbites with a purpose.

 

[1] Bevan, A. 1952 [1978 ed]. In Place of Fear. London: Quartet Books p. 130.

[2] The title of the video is ‘Labour Party Conference (1953)’. After looking through the Annual Report of the 1953 Labour Party Conference, I could not find the speech (or Attlee’s from the same video). From an article in the Times entitled ‘Reaching agreement with Russia’ from 27th September (the day before the conference), it appears that the speech was made at a rally on the eve of the Labour conference, rather than the conference itself as titled in the video posted by British Pathé. This would fit with Attlee’s comments in the speech after Bevan where he says he was speaking at a “great demonstration”.

[3] Bevan, A. 1957. Why Russia Wins Space Race. Tribune 11th October, p. 5. I hope to write in more detail on Bevan’s attitude towards the Soviet Union as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Comments

  • Derek Hill

    Interesting contrast with Rousseau who saw freedom as the natural state of man: L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers. Freedom was not so much returning to a better past but of creating a new society.

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