Bevan’s speech to the Manchester Labour rally 4 July 1948

Bevan lower than vermin speech

“The eyes of the world are turning to Great Britain. We now have the moral leadership of the world, and before many years are over we shall have people coming here as to a modern Mecca, learning from us in the twentieth century as they learned from us in the seventeenth century.”

Mr. Bevan’s speech was largely a review, followed by a pledge that the Government could carry out its entire programme, including the nationalization of steel. The Labour Party, he said, would win the 1950 election because successful Toryism and an intelligent electorate were a contradiction in terms.

Poverty, generally speaking was the consequence of bad social organization. Mr. Bevan recalled what he described as the bitter experiences of his early life. For a time he had to live on the earnings of an elder sister and was told to emigrate.

That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation. Now the Tories are pouring out money in propaganda of all sorts and are hoping by this organised sustained mass suggestion to eradicate from our minds all memory of what we went through. But, I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying now. Do not listen to the seductions of Lord Woolton. He is a very good salesman. If you are selling shoddy stuff you have to be a good salesman. But I warn you they have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse than they were.”

Social Legislation

Discussing the new social measures, Mr. Bevan said that the slight conflict over the National Health Act never worried him very much because – as a credulous idealist – he knew the truth would survive, and that as the medical profession came to know its provisions they would support ft. The Act was not based upon contributions, and every individual had equal rights to the scheme, whether insured or not. He paid a sincere tribute to the voluntary work of hospitals, but said private charity could never be a substitute for organized justice.

It was true there were many things the Government had not done, and the newspapers in the next few weeks would contain complaint after complaint about what they were not able to do. In the past the distress was there, but the complaints were not heard. “But after today the weak will be entitled to clamour. After a while the newspapers in the hands of our enemies will give the impression that everything is going wrong. Don’t be deceived, it is then that they will start going right. We are the people to whom the people can complain. I shall be unmoved by the newspapers, but moved by the distress.”

But the shortages would not fall exclusively upon those with no means. Someone would have central responsibility, and the complaints would herald the advent of things being put right. Half a million people were hard of hearing, and an aural aid would be provided, probably free of charge.

Resources were fully employed, and more for some could only be achieved by producing more or giving up something. Every such choice between a number of competing alternatives was an ethical and moral choice. The Government decided an issue in accordance with the best principles, and said the weak first, and the strong next”.

Referring to Mr. Churchill’s “set-the-people-free” speech, Mr. Bevan said that the result of the free-for-all preferred by Churchill would have been cinemas, mansions, hotels, and theatres going up, but no houses for the poor. “in 1945 and 1946,” he said, “we were attacked on our housing policy by every spiv in the country – for what is Toryism, except organized spivery? They wanted to let the spivs loose.” As a result of controls, the well-to-do had not been able to build houses, but ordinary men and women were moving into their own homes. Progress could not be made without pain, and the important thing was to make the right people suffer the pain.

People who campaigned against controls were conducting an immoral campaign. There was a kind of schizophrenia in the country, so that people reading the newspapers and hearing talk in luxury hotels got an entirely different conception of what was happening, which did not square with the statistics. The bodies and spirits of the people were being built up, but the Government’s efforts could not be sustained except by the energies and labour of the people. Production must be raised to make the new legislative reforms a living reality.

A Struggle Ahead

The Government never promised in 1945 that everybody was going to be better off. It knew that some were worse off to-day, but it always intended they should be. “in 1950 we shall face you again 1 with all our programme carried out. And when I say all, I mean all. I mean steel is going to be added,” said Mr. Bevan, amid cheers. “We are going to establish a new record: that of being the only British Government that ever carried out all its election promises.”

There would be a great struggle in the next two years, and every obstacle would be put before the Government. The House of Lords would resurrect its “old cartel carcase” and try and put it between the Government and the will of the people, but steps were being taken to deal with the House of Lords. “We will set that resistance on one side. We shall meet the struggle because we know exactly what we want to do, and how the Tories will react to it.”

Sources: Daily Telegraph, Manchester Guardian, and The Times, 5 July 1948