4 July 1948 – The Manchester Labour Rally
In a week in which the current Tory cabinet virtue signalled on public sector pay, its nearly 70 years since Nye Bevan warned the public of being fooled by empty Tory platitudes.
In 1948, the establishment of The NHS was to be the crown jewel in Labour’s ‘New Jerusalem’. But Bevan had the fight of his life to ensure that everybody would have access to the best medical care available.
After a tumultuous three year negotiation, he was highly sensitive to any attacks on its merit. The NHS had been strongly opposed by the Tories, the healthcare professionals and the BMA. As his vision began to bear fruit, Bevan delivered his most famous speech, on the eve of its creation:
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“In 1945 and 1946, 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.”
“In 1950 we shall face you again with all our programme carried out. And when I say all, I mean all. I mean steel is going to be added, we are going to establish a new record: that of being the only British Government that ever carried out all its election promises.”
“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.”
The speech sent the right wing press into a spin. The following day the Daily Express ran with: `Bevan: my burning hatred of the Tories’; The Times: `Mr Bevan’s “Burning Hatred”. Attack on Tory “vermin”‘. The Sunday Despatch`THE MAN WHO HATES 8,093,858 PEOPLE’. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband in 2014 with their infamous THE MAN WHO HATED BRITAIN
The Tories wore the Vermin tag like a badge of honour – quite literally. After the Bevan speech ‘The Vermin Club’ was established in various parts of the country, encompassing 120,000 Tory members, and many badges were produced with the phrase Vermin on it. In future, Bevan’s public meetings would be hijacked by ‘The Vermin Club’. Now it is Labour supporters who don the vermin badges with pride.
Back then though It wasn’t just the Tories who had been incensed by Bevan’s candour. Prime Minister Attlee was furious at the needless provocation. He wrote Bevan a note:
‘My Dearest Aneurin
I have received a great deal of criticism of the passage in your speech in which you describe the Conservatives as vermin, including a good deal from your own party. It was, I think singularly ill timed. It had been agreed that we wished to give the new scheme as good a send-off as possible and, to this end, a non-polemical broadcast. Your speech cut right across this. I had myself done as much as I could to point out the injustice of the attacks made upon you for your handling of the doctors, pointing out the difficulties experienced by your predecessors of various political colours in dealing with this profession. You won a victory in obtaining their tardy cooperation but these unfortunate remarks enable the doctors to stage a comeback and have given the general public the impression that there was more to their case than they had supposed. This is, I think, a great pity because without doing any good, it has drawn attention away from the excellent work you have done on the Health Bill. Please be a bit more careful, in your own interest.
When Attlee urged the party celebrate the birth of the NHS as a non-political event, it was too much for Bevan, who replied:
“The Conservatives voted against the National Health Act, not only on the second but on the Third Reading. I do not see why we should forget this.
Nye needn’t have worried. The speech outlived him and will probably outlive the NHS itself. When the Health and Social Care Bill was passed into law at the start of 2012, #lowerthanvermin was the Number 1 trend on Twitter, well above the official Labour organised hashtag #welovetheNHS.