The term Bevanism or Bevanite first emerged in the House of Commons as a word to describe the supporters or followers of Aneurin Bevan. Who initially coined the term is not known, although an early use of the word is from Dick Crossman on the 8th March 1951 (on a Keep Left paper on 'The Cold War in the Cabinet': 'each of us will be compelled to decide whether he is a Gaitskellian or a Bevanite...' The first meeting of the Bevanite Group took place the following month and Crossman was present, suggesting he had made that decision reasonably easily. The Bevanite Group came into being in April 1951 after Bevan, Wilson and Freeman resigned from the Government over the budget. When the three dissenting Ministers left the Cabinet they attended Keep Left Group meetings and the group quickly expanded. It is difficult to say when the Keep Left Group changed its name to the Bevanite Group as their papers were filed under 'Keep Left' until 1953, but 'Bevanite' was in wide circulation by 1952.
Any analysis of the parliamentary Bevanites must first consider the Keep Left Group which came into being as a small self-conscious entity in Parliament in 1946, expanded in 1950, and transformed into the Bevanites in 1951. From the start it included those who were later to be leading Bevanites such as Crossman, Foot and Mikardo. They came together to oppose what they saw as a retreat from socialism - particularly in Ernest Bevin's foreign policy. One of the primary ways in which this group operated was via the circulation of policy documents. These often concerned a full range of issues from foreign affairs to home policy matters. Certain Bevanites would specialise in certain matters (Thomas Balogh on the economy, Fenner Brockway on colonial matters, Crossman on the Cold War, etc.) Ian Mikardo would appear to have been the primary organiser, especially when Keep Left expanded to be the Bevanite Group. There were also admisitrative secretaries, Rose Cohen and Jo Richardson. While some have suggested a sexist division of labour here, later Barbara Castle and Jennie Lee went on to play key policy and propagandist roles in the group.
Links between Keep Left and Bevan did exist beefore the resignations of 1951. Donald Bruce (an author of the original Keep Left manifesto) had been in consultation with Bevan and others in the Cabinet over the Korean War and re-armament. While before 1950 Keep Left had been a rather small group of MPs (averaging perhaps ten regular attenders) it rapidly expanded when it began the Brains Trusts. These were meetings which were organised firstly by Keep Left and later by the Bevanites with the support of Tribune, where Keep Left or Bevanite speakers would form a panel at various meetings around the country. The organisation and success of the Brains Trusts really belong to another chapter, but they were part of the what caused Keep Left to prosperin the period leading up to the ministers joining its ranks. By the time those three rejoined the backbenches, Keep Left was the obvious focus of parliamentary left-wing organisation.
Did the nature of Keep Left dramatically change in the Spring of 1951, from the policy discussion group outlined here to Bevan's leadership campaign committee? While there would appear to have been an escalation in organisation to meet the expansion of the group's membership, it sees that the same sort of policy questions occupied their time both before and after the resignations. The first example of escalated organisation was the 'Plan for Mutual Aid' which Mikardo drew up in order that Keep Left/Bevanite MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates could assist each other during the 1951 General Election campaign. This plan includes a map of Britain with the location of all Bevanite or prospective Bevanite seats with the name of the candidate and his or her majority or minority written next to it. From there it goes on to organise who should go and speak at which constituency. The 'plan' was highly organised with the talents of those candidates defending a safe majority being re-distributed to the marginal seats. Mikardo also noted that 'there are a number of our friends outside the House who might be willing to help us in this plan'. At this stage this was not constituency foot-soldiers but well-known figures like A.J.P. Taylor and Lord Stansgate. While some might criticise this apparent reserving of many of the party's best platform speakers for the re-election of Bevanites rather than specifically for the return of a Labour government, the two are not mutually exclusive. There were occasions where group members seemed to put the group before the party. Richard Acland, in 1951, considered whether it might be in the group's interests to bring down the government in order to prevent Labour involvement in World War III, in a confidential paper (this was his feared consequence of the Korean War). While Acland did not emerge from a Labour tradition (he had been a Liberal Party member, then a leading light of the Common Wealth Party) even Crossman considered the benefits to be gained from losing the 1951 election. He feared the government were going to make three 'surrenders' on foreign policy issues, which he felt - if they had to be made - would be better made by a Tory government. In each case the offending sentence in his paper was crossed out.
There was some discussion at the start of 1952 as to whether the Bevanites should organise with the Left in other countries. This was an idea about which both Mikardo and Brockway were very enthusiastic. In a paper on the subject, Mikardo exclaimed his fury about the Party's xenophobic tendencies (particularly criticising Hugh Dalton, but also criticising some in the Bevanite group itself). He declared that what he was proposing was not 'a seventeenth International' but just some meetings with socialists from other countres. Brockway suggested that there was a lot of international interest, hope and enthusiasm for Bevanism, and there was a proposal for an international monthly review. Not much appears to have come of these suggestions.
Other examples of parliamentary Bevanite organisation are documents produced by the secretaries about finances and Brains Trust matters. There are income and expenditure accounts in the archives. In the 51/52 financial year 29 MPs paid their membership fee (£1) and all £29 was spent (mostly on stationery).
It is not always clear who the group members were. 15 MPs attended the famous 'first' Bevanite meeting in April '51, 23 atttended their first conference in December '51. By summer 1952 there were around 30 regular attenders. Some, like Jennie Lee, wished to see group expand and become a much larger faction, but the majority preferred the idea of an exclusive group with new members by invitation only (there would be occasional 'open' meetings for all PLP members).
Although Brains Trusts are of more interest for a later section, they did form part of the parliamentary organisation too. The two secretaries produced a list of the large number of towns which had had Brains Trust meetings between 1950 and 1952 (42 towns in total and some had had more than one visit) and which had requested meetings that had still to be scheduled. There was than a list of Keep Left/Bevanite speakers and how many Brains Trusts they had spoken at. Although the period is divided in half (before and after April 1951) there is clear general organisational continuity between Keep Left and the Bevanites. One reason for dividing the list in half was not to do a disservice to newer members who could not have spoken at as many Brains Trusts. However, by Spring/Summer 1952, Bevan had spoken at NO Brains Trusts (compared with Mikardo who had spoken at 46, 34 of which as a Bevanite rather than a Keep Lefter). By the start of 1954 there had been 150 Brains Trusts and there were 40 still pending organisation.
Bevan's poor record with the Brains Trusts raises another question: just how centralwas Bevan to the Bevanites? It is quite clear from the records that Bevan's role in the group was not one of circulating policy documents. Some, like Balogh and Crossman, were extremely prolific writers of policy documents; there is not a single such document from Bevan in the Keep Left/Bevanite files or the Crossman papers. Bevan was frequently absent from Group meetings. He was a 'shadow' leader of the party, but by no means the leader of the group. Mikardo was the first chair of the Bevanite Group, a role later taken by Harold Wilson. Effectively the Bevanite Group was the Keep Left Group, but with the additional prestige and notoriety which the inclusion of a top parliamentarian like Bevan gave.
Another aspect of parliamentary Bevanism was a social one. Thomas Driberg once quipped that the Bevanite group was 'not so much a "party within a party" as "the Smoking Room within the Smoking Room"'. Brian Brivati described the group as 'a hard-drinking group... a drunken night in Soho, ...a pub crawl during the party conference... ending in a row and a hangover.' John Campbell has described them as 'not much more than a group of congenial friends' but that is clearly an understatement.
What were the main issues for the PLP during the Bevanite period? There were the resignations of April 1951 (already mentioned). Then a rebellion of 57 MPs over Churchill's defence programme (they were whipped to abstain) in March 1952. There was the PLP's vote on German rearmament, Bevan's resignation from the Shadow Cabinet in 1954 over the creation of SEATO. 65 MPs rebelled to support a motion demanding parliamentary approval before the manufacture of the H-bomb. There was a showdown between Attlee And Bevan over the H-bomb in 1955, the rebellion (62 MPs) led to Bevan having the whip withdrawn (fairly briefly on this occasion). But the Bevanite Group began its slow disintegration from this time on, dividing into a number of factions, mainly over the issue of the bomb.
Critics on the right of Labour accused the Bevanites of being exclusive and disciplined, but the parliamentary rebellions mentioned abovle saw some Bevanite MPs being 'loyal' to the party whip, and involved temproray alliances with non-Bevanite MPs. For example, the 65 MPs who demanded parliamentary approval before the manufacture of the H-bomb did not icnlude a unanimous vote from the Bevanites (though it did include the leading lights such as Bevan, Mikardo and Crossman) but it did include a large number of other left-leaning MPs or those with strong views on the bomb, such as Tony Benn, Tony Greenwood and Maurice Edelman.
To consider, briefly, the collapse of the parliamentary Bevanites, one must consider what some have referred to as the defection of the centre-left and also Bevan's return to the leadership, which left the left-wing Bevanites leaderless. The new centre-left accused of defection from the Bevanites were characterised by Richard Crossman and Harold Wilson. After Bevan's resignation from the Shadow Cabinet (1954) Crossman complained to Wilson of Bevan's 'death wish' fearing 'they're going to try and get us expelled'. This was when the group was still at the height of its strength: the rifts that were to lead to its disintegration were already apparent, and they were more than just left vs. centre left (Mikardo, very much a 'left Bevanite' was cross that Bevan's resignation had not been discussed with the group).
In 1955, Crossman wrote (to his CLP EC) of a 'rift' which had opened out between him, Freeman and Wilson on the one side, and Bevan on the other. This was over the issue of nuclear weapons (Crossman believe Britain should have 'a small independent nuclear deterrent'). He later wrote to Bevan, declaring that his aim was to 'restore a proper balance between Right and Left in the Party by strengthening the Left' saying 'insofar as my "piddling little aim" as you would no doubt call it, coincides with yours, we work happily together'. He concluded that Bevan had decided to end the group in its old form and therefore 'each of us on each occasion has to think and act for himself'. The group had been formally disbanded in 1952 (it had been operating in a clandestine way from that time on, as one of the worst-kept secrets in the PLP!) Bevan had also denied any role in the organisation during the expulsion crisis in '55. Crossman said that Bevan entered a 'psychological semi-retired' in 1954.
People like Mikardo, Driberg and Castle were morally opposed to nuclear weapons, some - like Bevan - had no moral objection, but opposed the 'multilateralists' on tactical grounds. There was a significant realignment of the left in 1955, even though the group existed in some form until at least summer 1956. Crossman blamed Labour's 1955 defeat on an 'Anti-Bevanite vote' (signalling that he had well and truly changed camps).
The parliamentary Bevanites then divided amongst 'Victory for Socialism' and the higher echelons of the Party (most notably Bevan himself whose split from the Left was a very public confrontation with left-wing delegates at the 1957 Conference). As Shadow Foreign Secretary, Bevan did change his views on some long-argued issues (although he was never a declared 'unilateralist' so his comments in '57 were uncharacteristic rather than inconsistent). His support for Gaitskell's compromise over nationalisation that same year is less clearly explicable. He said he no longer wished to 'rock the boat', but he had done so in the past on issues of degree, rather than this issue of principle.
The 1955-59 parliament was described as 'a period of remarkable unity and concord within the PLP' (Victory for Socialism did not have a big impact). In fact it was in 1960 that parliamentary rebellion began to increase (again, particularly on defence), with many of the old Bevanite faces involved (Richard Crossman had to resign from the Shadow Cabinet). In June of that year, 81 MPs supported a Victory for Socialism motion of no confidence in Gaitskell. This was a bigger PLP challenge to the leadership than at any time during the height of parliamentary Bevanism. Nye died the following week, on the 6th July, 1960.
Was the Bevanite Group of MPs a 'party within a party'? How extraordinary was the anti-Bevanite discplinary reaction it met? There is no evidence that the Bevanites exercised any kind of internal discipline even though accusations of them having whips were common. In fact, a record of how Bevanites voted on the various divisive issues of the period, as we have seen, shows that the group rarely acted as one and while some difted away from the group there is no evidence of anyone being asked to leave. How broadly it was felt that the Bevanites used disciplinary measures can be seen in Tony Benn's letter to Fenner Brockway of 22nd November 1951, following an invitation to join the group:
Just a note to let you know that I would prefer to postpone any decision on the question you asked me on Tuesday.
Though I share many of the views held by the group, as a new member enjoying a little independence for the first time I don't want to bind myself in any way at present
Tony Wedgewood Benn
The combination of this feeling that members were bound somehow, coupled wit hthe rather exclusive way in which MPs were invited to join, helped fuel the notion of a 'Party within a Party'. Parliamentary factions were not uncommon and it was not beyond the memory of 1950s politicians when the Labour Party had been made up of official Parties within the Party in a political confederation (e.g. the ILP, which included Jennie Lee amongst its number). The Bevanite Group in Parliament never came close to having the independent political organsation of the ILP Group of MPs. However, Michael Foot suggested that, from 1950-1960, the leadership 'operated a system of discipline in the Labour Party of almost totalitarian proportions'. The most 'totalitarian' tactics were exacted not on MPs but on members outside Parliamentm which will be considered later. But Party managers certainly did seem to over-react to rebellions. The whip was constantly being threatened to be withdrawn (and occasionally was) and there was talk of expelling 'ringleaders'. R. K. Alderman has said that the leadership could not have 'ignored the challenge' of the Bevanites, which is true: but they presumably were not aiming to be ignored!
But this 'major organised rebellious group' in reality never had the whips and discipline which it was accused of having. Even at its height its membership never reached 50 MPs. Whether the party's managers really believed that the Bevanites were as organised as their publicly expressed fears suggested it is difficult to say. As Crossman said: 'the fact is that Bevanism and the Bevanites seem much more important, well-organised and Machiavellian to the rest of the Labour Party, an indeed to the USA, than they do to us who are in the group...'
As a faction it was only out of the ordinary because of the high profile of some of its leaders, but primarily because it reflected a growing tendency in the Party outside Parliament. One can only really understand the influence of the Bevanite Group of MPs through an understanding of extra-parliamentary Bevanism, and particularly the 'rank and file' Bevanism in the constituencies.