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Demythologising Nye Bevan

It is more than a quarter of a century since Aneurin Bevan died. In his lifetime, right up to the onset of his final illness in 1959, he was the most charismatic and controversial, the most loved and the most loathed political personality in Britain. By the time of his death in July 1960 he was widely recognised, by opponents as well as by his long-time supporters, as one of the most gifted and creative political leaders to have graced British politics this century – the equal in potential, if not in achievement, of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.

Since 1960 he has been all but canonised, raised above criticism as the soul and conscience of the old Labour Party, the father of the National Health Service and a source of emotional inspiration and legitimising quotations, while successive Labour leaders from Wilson to Kinnock have fallen over themselves to assert their claim to his mantle.

And yet in the twenty-seven years since his death scarcely anyone has written directly about him except his adopted political son and faithful disciple, Michael Foot, and his fiercely loyal widow, Jennie Lee. Both have movingly recalled his abundant humanity and have eloquently described and re-fought the political battles which they shared with him. But no historian has tried to reassess him or attempted seriously to measure the reality of his achievement or his impact on his time.

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