Alfie Hancox writes how the apparently progressive post-war government in the UK which delivered unprecedented social security simultaneously undermined progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty were thwarted. Hancox reveals Labour’s Aneurin Bevan’s role in deepening British imperialism.
By Alfie Hancox
The working-class vision of socialism during this period may be blurred by the corruption of the ‘welfare state’—Kwame Nkrumah
As the popular national story goes, after the Second World War the British working class, seeking a just reward for their sacrifices, came together to win a fairer society by voting in the Labour government which built the welfare state. At the heart of this reputed ‘Spirit of ‘45’ was the architect of the National Health Service (NHS), Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (1897–1960). Bevan has pride of place in the romanticised pantheon of the Labour left, and he is widely held to epitomise the party’s ‘socialist soul’. While often memorialised as a class warrior who once called for ‘the complete political extinction of the Tory Party’, behind ‘the myth of the miner prophet’ there lies a much more complex and contradictory picture of Bevan the statesman.
Britain’s post-war welfare settlement emerged against the backdrop of negotiated decolonisation – which was by no means a peaceful or straightforward process – and class compromise within the bounds of the capitalist nation-state was mediated by an enduring relationship with Empire. For Bevan, socialism was above all a ‘language of priorities’, and a critical overview of his parliamentary career reveals that colonised peoples in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were often a subordinate element in his considerations, despite his long-standing friendship with Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.
It is also often forgotten that the welfare state was serviced by a migrant workforce extracted from Britain’s colonial ‘dependencies’, who were greeted upon arrival with racial-exclusionary impulses which were at times reinforced by Bevan himself. Similar ‘nativist’ tendencies remained present in the recent social democratic revival, demonstrating the need for an interrogation of the traditional Labour movement’s entanglement with imperialism.
The welfare state as neocolonial compact
Social welfare reforms delivered by the state have a contradictory class character. On the one hand, they constitute immediate gains for workers, but at the same time they assist in the reproduction of a value-creating labour force and represent concessions which may boost the legitimacy of capitalism. Welfare measures thus play a mediatory function in the push and pull of class struggle, the surge forward and the reactive containment. Interwar Britain was not wholly immunised from the social convulsions that shook continental Europe, and one wartime Conservative Member of Parliament warned in a famous speech: ‘If you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution.’
The reforming Labour government of 1945–51 adopted a carrot and stick approach to class compromise, as the expansion of social housing and public education, and advent of free healthcare, was accompanied with a consolidation of workplace discipline. Bevan claimed to have received his political training in Marxism, but his true faith was in parliamentary democracy, and he believed that national industrial management laid the foundations for the construction of socialism ‘from above’. As a member of Clement Attlee’s Ministerial Emergencies Committee, the erstwhile trade union militant helped defeat a strike wave in the newly nationalised industries (a response to efficiency drives), using the Supply and Transport Organisation which two decades earlier helped beat back the General Strike of 1926.
While welfare concessions reflect the domestic class balance of forces, this is only one part of the story. As the British New Left historian John Saville identified in 1957, ‘the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the ruling class’ in charting a new social consensus had ‘been derived from the possession of the world’s largest Empire.’ It was this situation which enabled the Labour government to square the circle of maintaining (relative) class peace at home, without eliminating capitalist exploitation. The Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, in his seminal 1965 study Neo-Colonialism, explained how the governing elite in Europe and North America found a means to deal with social demands at home after the war:
A deliberate attempt was made to divert colonial earnings from the wealthy class and use them instead generally to finance the ‘Welfare State’ … this was the method consciously adopted even by those working-class leaders who had before the war regarded the colonial peoples as their natural allies against their capitalist enemies at home.
Immediately following the war, Britain was facing a currency balances crisis that called Labour’s social plans into question. Bevan was not explicit about where the money for Attlee’s ‘New Jerusalem’ would come from, but his colleague Evelyn John Strachey, a former Marxist and Labour’s Minister of Food, was more forthright. During a parliamentary debate on a Colonial Development bill in 1948, the year of the NHS’s founding, Strachey concluded that ‘by hook or by crook, the development of primary production of all sorts, in the Colonial areas, Colonial territories and dependent areas in the Commonwealth … is, it is hardly too much to say, a life and death matter for the economy of this country.’
The Attlee government essentially pursued a policy of issuing ‘IOUs’ to the colonies in return for the dollars earned from key exports such as rubber and tin from Malaya and cocoa from Ghana. Britain’s post-war reconstruction employed ‘a more systematic exploitation of colonies than at any previous time in imperial history’ – with the active support of the labour bureaucracy. The trade union leader, Ernest Bevin, declared: ‘I am not prepared to sacrifice the British empire [because] it would mean that the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.’ As the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore put it, these labour lieutenants of imperialism wanted to turn the British working class into collective ‘shareholders of the Empire.’
British socialism’s civilising mission
Writing in the socialist newspaper Morning Star, the trade unionist and historian Graham Stevenson has attempted to defend the legacy of the welfare state, and detach it from Attlee’s imperialist adventures in Korea, Malaya and Iran, by arguing that ‘foreign policy was not in Nye Bevan’s remit’. It is well known, however, that Bevan had wanted the Colonial Office, and he was an influential voice in international affairs as the charismatic leader of the ‘soft left’ Tribune faction.
Though Bevan’s rejection of the pre-war colonial status quo did put him at variance with the Labour right, he nevertheless stressed he was ‘against any proposal for complete self-government’ until the colonised countries had endured sufficient tutelage under British parliamentary democracy. He believed in the civilising mission of the ‘Socialist Commonwealth’, and in 1948 declared that with the advent of the National Health Service Britain had achieved ‘the moral leadership of the world’. This paternalistic mindset, which smacked of the ‘white man’s burden’, was typical of the ethical socialist tradition in Labour, and distanced Bevan from the approach of the Comintern-affiliated League Against Imperialism and the Manchester Pan-African Congress, which both rejected the ‘Enlightened’ colonial doctrine of trusteeship.
Bevan never challenged the unequal economic relationship with the ‘dependencies’ which characterised Britain’s free trade imperialism, or what he preferred to call ‘the legitimate claims of world commerce’. The superior British capacity for ethicizing self-interest was shared by Bevan’s wife and fellow MP Jennie Lee, who said at Labour’s annual conference in 1956, without a hint of irony: ‘We have to work for the day when there will be a higher standard of living here, a higher standard of living in the colonies, and when as free and friendly nations they will want us to be their bankers.’
It was in his attitudes to the Middle East that Bevan’s more overtly imperialist leanings came to the fore. While opposing the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, Bevan nonetheless expressed his outrage when President Gamel Abdel Nasser, who he racistly dubbed ‘Ali Baba’, nationalised the Suez Canal used to transport ‘our oil’. In justifying the Zionist colonial project that violently displaced 700,000 Palestinians, Bevan also argued in the Cabinet that ‘it was not necessarily true that we must avoid estranging Arab states. A friendly Jewish state would be a safer military base than any we should find in any Arab state’. He thought that Europeanised Jewish settlers could shake up the ‘semi-medieval institutions’ of the Arab world and prepare the grounds for socialist democracy, betraying a racialised view of civilisational development.
Bevan’s wavering stance on colonial liberation didn’t make him an outlier on the Labour left. For example, it was the former treasurer of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, Anthony Greenwood, who as Labour’s Colonial Secretary oversaw the ousting of British Guinea (Guyana)’s socialist Premier Cheddi Jagan. The Communist Party theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt identified this tried and test pattern of western social democracy, whereby ostensibly left-wing spokespersons are ‘given positions in the imperialist machine such as would not only gag them from expressing anti-imperialist sentiments but compel them to undertake the official duty of defending imperialist policies’.
Ultimately, the government that delivered unprecedented social security at home simultaneously thwarted progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty, and regionalist aspirations like those fleetingly concretised in Nkrumah’s Union of African States. Labour’s inglorious colonial record came up one time when Bevan was lecturing the Conservatives on their imperial policy. When he mentioned the imprisonment of Nkrumah, Tory members opposite reminded him that the Attlee government he served in as Health Minister was responsible! Bevan brushed this off, replying: ‘Well, we shoved him in gaol. If honourable members will restrain their hilarity for a moment, I said that this is part of the classic story of these struggles.’ This glib response omitted the killing of unarmed protestors in Ghana, which took place months before the arrest of Nkrumah. The West African Students’ Union, of which Dr. Nkrumah was a former member, noted that US imperialism often appeared a lesser threat to colonial independence than ‘British Socialism’.
An additional pillar of Attlee’s foreign policy was the backing of Western Europe’s remilitarisation under the US Marshall Plan, enabling the British Communist Party to declare that Labour’s welfare state was really a ‘warfare state’. Before WWII, Bevan had alienated the Labour leadership by calling for a United Front with communists against the fascist threat in Europe. However, his sympathies had changed with the onset of the Cold War, as anti-colonial movements supported by the Soviet Union destabilised the hegemony of the western imperial powers; and the Bevanites became enmeshed in an ideological struggle pitting Occidental social democracy against Marxism-Leninism. Bevan’s 1951 ‘rebellion’ against Labour’s militarism was not a protest against the genocidal proportions of the Korean War – he had in fact fully supported the Anglo-American invasion of the Peninsula – but because bloated defence spending was now cutting into his health service.
Empire and the National Health
The welfare state also carried the imprint of Empire domestically. While healthcare is a basic social necessity, historically the state provisioning of medical services has been framed in terms of labour productivity and, from the late-nineteenth century, imperialist ideologies of racial hygiene. The Liberal economist William Beveridge’s 1942 blueprint for the welfare settlement recommended that ‘good stock should be allowed to breed while bad stock would be ameliorated through state intervention’, and similar eugenics-influenced sentiments permeated the Labour movement through the Fabian Society.
The nationalisation policies in 1945–51 were not in any meaningful sense socialist, being administered from above by the capitalist state. While Bevan described the National Health Service as ‘pure socialism’, it was compromised from the start by the continued existence of independent contractors and retention of private practice. Nevertheless, the post-war reforms were a step forward in terms of collective social security, and they boosted loyalty to the nation-state that administered them: welfare came ‘wrapped in the Union Jack’. The language of socialism was co-opted and degraded by what Tom Nairn termed Labour’s ‘nationalization of class’, and lost in the process of the patriotic social compact were the Marxist values of working class self-empowerment.
Notions of national belonging and entitlement in Britain became increasingly racialised after the war, and as Satnam Virdee reminds us, the apogee of British social democracy ‘was also the golden age of white supremacy [and] legal racist discrimination’. When migrant workers from the non-white ‘New Commonwealth’ were induced to bolster Britain’s public services and stagnating industries, they were met with a racist ‘colour bar’ in employment and housing, often reinforced by the white-dominated trade unions. In 1948, a year that saw violent attacks on Black residents in Liverpool, Bevan wrote that if ‘colonial subjects come here on their own responsibility’ they ‘cannot complain if it is not all plain sailing’.
An informal caste system was built into the NHS itself, with workers of colour restricted to the lowest-paid employment grades, regardless of their level of training. A Brixton-based Black feminist group described how the health service was like a colony in the way it was run: ‘in the head of the black nurse from the Caribbean is the echo of slavery; in the head of the Asian nurse is the servitude to Sahib and Memsahib.’ Britain was simultaneously draining skilled medical labour from developing countries, the effects of which were described in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The hyper-exploited labour of Black and Brown women was unacknowledged by Bevan, who ascribed the NHS’s success to ‘the vitality and genius of the British people’. 
Healthcare was quickly propelled to the centre of popular anti-immigrant discourses, and only a year after the NHS’s inception Bevan succumbed to nativist pressures by assuring voters that he’d ‘arranged for immigration officers to turn back aliens who were coming to this country to secure benefits off the Health Service’. The image of non-British ‘foreigners’ exploiting the NHS was a trope later deployed to great effect by Conservative MP Enoch Powell in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
Bevan’s capitulation reflected a failure to offer a principled counter to anti-immigration rhetoric. His celebrated essay ‘In Place of Fear: A Free Health Service’ was riven by a tension between the defence of ‘the collective principle’ in terms of socialist universalism, and a cost-benefit approach that stressed immigrants’ contributions to ‘national revenues’, and the expenses that would be incurred by passport checks at hospitals. When Bevan rebuked the Trades Union Congress’s call for immigration restrictions after the 1958 racist riot in Notting Hill, this was not on grounds of proletarian internationalism, but the potential damage it would do to the image of the Commonwealth as ‘the greatest constitutional experiment in the history of nations’.
The legacy of Empire persists in the health service today, as demonstrated by the revival of medical racism in the Coronavirus context. The NHS is also still dependent on the labour of precarious migrant workers, now extracted from developing countries such as the Philippines and Nigeria. The present struggle to defend healthcare services in Britain thus needs to be coupled with a historical awareness of the inherent dangers of seeking social reform within the confines of the imperialist nation-state. We should look beyond the elitist parliamentary socialism of Bevan, to the alternative politics of metropolitan anti-colonialists like Dutt and Padmore who sought not a class settlement within the parameters of capitalist competition, but the levelling of wages and conditions across national and racial boundaries. The experiences of the 1970s–1980s further demonstrated that rank-and-file struggles in the health sector, often instigated by low-paid Black ancillary workers, can galvanise the labour movement in a profoundly progressive manner. We can draw on these lessons, and reconnect with more radical, worker and patient-driven visions of socialist healthcare which target the social roots of ill-health intrinsic to capitalist exploitation.
Alfie Hancox writes on Marxism and anti-imperialism. He is currently researching the British Black Power movement and works as an editor at Ebb Magazine.
Featured Photograph: Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan in 1954.
 John Callaghan, The Labour Party and Foreign Policy: A History (Routledge, 2007), p. 164.
 Hakim Adi, West Africans in Britain, 1900–1960 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1998), p. 133.
 R. P. Dutt, J. R. Campbell & Harry Pollitt, Welfare State or Warfare State? An Appeal to Every Sincere Labour Man and Woman(London: CPGB, 1950).
 Robbie Shilliam, Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit (Agenda Publishing, 2018), ch. 4.
 Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 98–9.
 Shirley Joshi & Bob Carter, ‘The Role of Labour in the Creation of a Racist Britain’, Race & Class 25, 3 (1984), p. 60.
 Brixton Black Women’s Group, ‘Black Women and Nursing: A Job Like Any Other’, Race Today 6, 8 (1974), p. 226.
 Christopher Kyriakides & Satnam Virdee, ‘Migrant Labour, Racism and the British National Health Service’, Ethnicity & Health 8, 4 (2003), p. 287.
Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie & Suzanne Scafe, Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (Verso, 2018), pp. 45–50.